Anyone for bug soup?
Andrew Gumbel (right) went to Seattle to meet the chef who put the pest into pesto. But would he stay for lunch?
Friday 03 September 1999
For years, his wife and daughter have put up with his eccentricities and even grown to love the little pests crawling and flying around their house and garden on the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle. But now Gordon has done something even his nearest and dearest find a little beyond the pale. He has brought his insects and arthropods into the kitchen and flung them into frying pans.
In short, he has turned into an entomophage, a bug eater, a man who happily bites the heads off grasshoppers, fries up tomato hornworms and crunches crickets for dessert. His wife, Mari, refuses to have anything to do with it. His 10-year-old daughter Julia has taken the bugs' side: "If they are really so lovable," she argues, "how come he can bring himself to eat them?"
Undaunted, Gordon has renamed his kitchen the Eat-A-Bug Cafe, and spent the last few months travelling around the United States to demonstrate recipes from his gourmet volume, The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook.
As Gordon would be the first to acknowledge, there is nothing unusual about munching on the lower rungs of the animal food chain. Bugs are a part of the diet of almost every continent on earth except for Europe and North America, and in some parts of the world, such as China and Mexico, they can even be considered a delicacy.
But nobody, before him, has ever thought to present them as nouvelle cuisine. "The bugs in my recipes look good," he writes proudly. "They are visual as well as gastronomic treats. Most are brightly coloured and handsomely proportioned (a few are downright fetching)."
The photographs in his cookbook feature the same lush, deep colours and impeccable presentation one might expect of the Roux brothers or the Cucchiaio d'Argento - except that those mollusc-looking creatures on top of the watercress salad are in fact giant water bugs, and that rather yummy-looking green cream soup (pea, perhaps? or asparagus?) is actually made from katydids, a variety of long-horned grasshopper. Among the 33 recipes lovingly presented by Gordon are a curried termite stew; a three-bee salad; a pasta sauce with weevils and pine nuts that he calls "pest-o"; an Alpha-Bait Soup including honey-fed waxworms; a chocolate cricket torte; and finally bee's knees, L-shaped biscuits, including you know what, plus walnuts and shredded coconut.
Unlike other bug chefs, Gordon does not believe in grinding his raw ingredients, or otherwise "concealing" them. He likes his bugs out in the open and visible. He has opinions, too, about the correct wine to serve - a good light Pinot Gris to go with the delicacies of stir-fried dragonflies, or a heavier red, a Shiraz or Zinfandel, alongside the robust flavour of broiled centipedes.
Can he be serious? Oh yes he can. Gordon is not just an eccentric, he is also a confirmed gastronome who swears that - once you get over the initial revulsion - these creatures are truly delicious. Hornworms are "ridiculously chlorophyll-rich"; the protein in many other varieties might just be what the world needs to combat poverty.
"People have rather narrow ideas about what food is," he says, with just a hint of conspiracy about him. "We've all been infected by anti-bug propaganda, a lot of it spread by exterminators. The truth is, insects are the only creatures on the planet that we are in direct competition with. We are in a state of constant warfare against bugs... admitting that bugs taste good in our culture is tantamount to sleeping with the enemy."
Across America, audiences have looked on in grim fascination as Gordon has handed out ants like popcorn, talked of the affinities between fried crickets and roasted peanuts, and lectured on the environmental benefits of eating common pests. Invariably it is the children - especially 10- to 12-year-old boys - who warm to his enthusiasm the most.
Gordon is a man of warmth and humour, which is just as well. Our appointment is in a picture-perfect kitchen on the northern tip of Seattle's Capitol Hill, complete with views of Lake Washington. To the left is a collection of grasshoppers that have been soaked overnight in a marinade of oil, soy sauce, mustard, and honey. The idea is to skewer them with tomatoes, mushrooms and onions on long wooden kebab sticks. To the right are four scorpions collected from the Sonoran desert in Arizona, which are to be breaded and fried. I'm not sure I like the look of any of it. "We're looking at the food of the future," beams my host. "Nutritious, cheap, easy on the earth's resources and protein-rich."
The scorpions are first. We have to cut off the last segment of their tails, which contain the stinger and the venom pouch. As the kitchen knife crackles through the shell, a little white goo oozes out. "Don't worry about that," Gordon says cheerily, "that's just a bit of the tail meat escaping." And with that he dips the scorpions in a milk bath, dredges them through some maize flour and flings them into a pan with clarified butter and lemon juice.
The heat is on medium, always a wise precaution with arthropods because their exoskeletons leave nowhere for the heat and steam to escape. "If you cook them too hot they can pop," Gordon explains. "If you are cooking a giant caterpillar or something the whole kitchen can get splattered."
The scorpions are ready, and my host nudges a couple of them on to my plate. I sink my teeth into a tail, pulling off the outside to get at the thin sliver of meat within. It tastes a bit chalky, somewhere between tinned tuna and a piece of string.
"How did you first get interested in eating bugs?" I ask, politely setting the rest of my plate aside. The answer lies with Gordon's previous project, a book called The Compleat Cockroach. While researching, he found that English sailors in the 18th century made preserves from the roaches plaguing them on board. "That blew my mind," he says. Eating cockroaches "still separates the men from the boys". Fortunately, I am to be spared that trial.
The grasshoppers arrive off their griddle and Gordon encourages me to stick one in a mini-bun and bite into it like a hamburger. Then, one of them gives me a look with his beady black eyes and suddenly everything about it - its frozen wings, the glistening shell of its thorax - gives me the creeps. Gingerly, I lick its left foreleg but I know I don't even want to touch this thing, much less stick it in my mouth.
"I know what you're going through," Gordon says sympathetically. "Your body might be willing but your brain says - `don't do it!'. I have the same problem with the really big caterpillars."
He wolfs down his grasshoppers like they were confection bars, murmuring "delicious" as he picks odd bits of shell out of his teeth. "You must come to a bug banquet at my house sometime," he suggests. I appreciate the thought, but I think I'll leave him and his bug friends to it.
`The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook' is available through the Airlift Book Company (pounds 10.99). Tel: 0181-804 0400
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