Plate or Pass: Bugs

Daniella Martin is removing three plastic containers of bugs from her freezer. "This is the death chamber," she says. She gives the containers a shake to loosen up the frozen bugs and dumps the contents onto separate baking sheets. Martin will bake the mealworms and crickets first. As she salts the latter, she explains that the crickets' faces sometimes come off while they're cooked. Though she isn't striving for morbidity, we can't help but let out a nervous giggle.

Martin is part of a growing movement of Western entomophagists, or bug eaters. Her interest in the topic was inspired by a college trip to Yucatan in Mexico, where she spent a semester living with the Maya and studying indigenous food, culture, and medicine. She found that insects were once an essential part of the Mayan diet, due to the lack of large game in the region. In 2008, she launched Girl Meets Bug, a blog and occasional cooking show chronicling her bug-eating adventures.

Martin invited Hot Dish to her house to sample a number of Minnesota-themed dishes featuring -- you guessed it -- insects. The menu included a wild rice hot dish with crispy crickets, purple cabbage slaw with toasted mealworms, and Honeycrisp apple slices topped with cheese and waxworms.

See also:
Daniella Martin of Girl Meets Bug on how eating bugs is healthy, sustainable, and tasty

Before you freak out, take a moment to consider the facts. Insects have been eaten since the dawn of man. Fossils of feces show digested ants, beetles, mites, and ticks. We're not advocating for anyone to nosh on the next tick they find on their body, but it's something to keep in mind. In modern times, more than 1,400 varieties of insects are eaten by 80 percent of the world's nations.

Entomophagy is about as sustainable as meat-eating gets. Compared to raising large livestock like cows and pigs for meat production, raising insects requires far less space and resources. In fact, the University of California's Center for Invasive Species Research estimates that raising insects for food may be 20 times as efficient as raising cattle, when their high reproductive rates and speed of development are taken into consideration.

Bugs also pack a nutritious punch. A serving of 100 grams of crickets contains 12.9 grams of protein for only 120 calories and, as Martin pointed out, eating a handful of crickets every week could easily fulfill a person's vitamin B requirement. Because insects like the mealworm and cricket are eaten whole, consumers receive added nutrients from the internal organs.

It seems the Western world is finally starting to catch on. A number of companies, like Chapul and Exo, have crafted cricket energy bars made from cricket flour. The bars are expensive, at $32-$36 for a box of 12, but perhaps that will change when consumers realize how much potential bug-eating has.

Daniella Martin's bug-centered menu

Daniella Martin's bug-centered menu

Our first experience with bug eating occurred while perusing hot sauces at Pepper Palace in the Mall of America. The store owner opened a box of ranch flavored crickets and invited us to take a sample. They were fine, if a little dry. We took a box of nacho cheese flavored mealworms for the road and ate them all in one go. They tasted hollow, like the red skins around peanuts. Martin's baked cricket and mealworm dishes were on a totally different level.

Martin's baked crickets were delicious on their own, seasoned lightly with salt. Unlike the crickets we tried at Pepper Palace, they had substance and blended perfectly with the wild rice hot dish, both by sight and taste. For those unable to swallow a whole cricket, the wild rice hot dish is a great option. The legs occasionally get stuck in your teeth, but it's nothing a toothpick can't fix.

Our favorite edible insect of the afternoon was the mealworm, the larval form of the mealworm beetle. If we could, we'd probably eat baked mealworms day in and day out. They're the perfect snack food, like something from a bag of Chex Mix.

Mealworms are crunchy creatures with soft insides. If you hold them to the light or bite them in half, you can see the digestive tract running from one side of its body to the other. Martin added the mealworms to a bright cabbage slaw with a similar crunch. Again, if the thought of mealworm-eating makes you queasy, this is a great place to start.

For the last dish of the afternoon, Martin served waxworms (her favorite) atop honeycrisp slices and cheese. Waxworms, the larval form of wax moths, are small white caterpillars that Daniella Martin famously uses to make waxworm tacos, as featured on her cooking show, Girl Meets Bug. Like the cricket and mealworm before it, the waxworm could and should be eaten like popcorn. When served with the cheese and apple, the waxworm tasted similar to a toasted slivered almond. What's not to like?

Verdict: 100% plate

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