The future of food is sitting in front of me, and it’s covered in dead bugs. That is, if you buy the hype: The next big, most sustainable source of protein, they say, is insects. A 2013 report from the United Nations urged us all to eat more such critters because they’re not only nutritionally rich, but they’re more efficient to produce and have a much smaller carbon footprint than the slabs of dead mammals Americans love to devour every day. Bugs may not only keep us well fed, but could actually help us preserve the planet.
Sounds great! So why does this feel so weird?
Well, my status as fairly typical American white dude probably has something to do with it. Because even though roughly 2 billion people around the world enjoy the nutritious crunch of things like crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, and various worms, the concept is fairly new to most Westerners.
That may be starting to change. Over the last few years, a swarm (get it?) of new companies have dedicated themselves to farming, prepping, and packaging various bugs in various ways. Is our aversion to eating bugs a mere design problem? At least one startup believes hoping to make bugs more palatable to Americans by putting them in a familiar-looking package: Cricket protein bar anyone?
Bug-enhanced dishes have also been finding their way onto the menus of more American restaurants. Indeed, the growth of hip New York eateries offering dead insects has become the stuff of GrubHub listicles like this one. Are these restaurants onto something, or is this just a cringe-worthy fad? That’s what I’m here to find out.
As part of Fast Company’s Food Week, I decided to spend an afternoon trying some of these bug-infested delicacies for myself. As a kid, I was a pretty picky eater. My adult years have lent themselves to a much more adventurous palate, but I still have never put a fully formed grasshopper directly into my mouth on purpose, for instance. But here goes nothin’.
The first stop on my so-called Cricket Crawl is Toloache, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district that is one of the best known purveyors of insect-laden lunches. Specifically, they’re known for their tacos de chapulin, better known to gringos like myself as grasshopper tacos. While many foods made with bugs offer a more subtle presentation, Toloache doesn’t mess around: These tacos look like a mass grave after some unspeakable war crime against a tiny village of grasshoppers …topped with cilantro, minced onions, and salsa verde. At the end of the day, it’s just a taco with a much crunchier source of protein. They’re really good. But if you’re squeamish about the idea of eating insects, you might not want to start with a dish that leaves tiny legs hanging from your mouth.
A more subtle path toward a bug-rich diet can be found a little further downtown at Black Ant. This East Village Mexican restaurant is also known for serving up bugs, but there are other options ranging across the potential gross-out spectrum. Like Toloache, Black Ant serves grasshopper tacos featuring a mouthful of fully intact, cooked grasshoppers. They also serve cricket croquets, each of which is topped with a fried cricket. They’re tasty, but also not a great starting point for the squeamish.
If you’re curious to try bugs but are still nervous about it, here’s a life hack: Order a cocktail. Specifically, Black Ant’s smoky jalapeno margarita. Not only will it help take the edge off, but it comes with a blend of sugar and black ant salt around the rim. Yes, those tiny black specks are bits of ants. But you can barely tell. And again, killer source of protein.
Black Ant also serves guacamole peppered with dehydrated black ants (among other things, including orange peels and peppers). It’s excellent guac and there’s so much going on in it that you won’t even notice that one of the ingredients has antennae. Highly recommended.
All told, everything I tried at Toloache and Black Ant was really good. The idea of eatings bugs didn’t phase me, but the stigma is very real: Most of my colleagues cringed at the leftovers I brought back to the office, although a few adventurous souls happily finished off the extra grasshopper taco and ant guacamole. One of our video producers reached for a cricket croquet, but had an immediate change of heart and recoiled. Eventually, somebody ate it.
The only real disappointment I had about the Cricket Crawl is that I had to cut it short. My initial research turned up some enticing options like the cricket burger at Antojeria la Popular and a cricket-infused milk shake at Wayback Burgers in Brooklyn. A cricket-infused milkshake! But alas, the shake was no longer available at Wayback and Antojeria la Popular is now closed. Could it be that New York City has already reached peak cricket?
Either way, I’m sold: This whole bug-eating thing is not only a good idea for our health and the environment, it can be pretty tasty too.