Top | The Culinate Interview
David George Gordon
(article, Ellen Kanner)
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p(blue). In a recent food and agriculture report, the United Nations proposed entomophagy as a viable means of addressing global hunger. "Entomophagy" is science-speak for "insect eating," and television shows such as '"Bizarre and '"Fear have dabbled in the practice. More seriously, as the UN report suggests, insects are a more eco-friendly protein source than meat, poultry, or fish.
p(blue). For years, the naturalist David George Gordon has advocated entomophagy. The author of 19 books, Gordon has developed bug-based recipes and given insect-cuisine demos and classes all over the world, earning himself the moniker the Bug Chef. His newly revised Eat-a-Bug Cookbook offers recipes like the punnish Spin-akopita (complete with wolf spiders), but also challenges our notions of what we consider food.
Your bio describes you not as a chef but a naturalist. Indeed, your other 18 books are about snails, slugs, cockroaches, and clams. What’s your background?
I’m actually a professional science writer. I studied natural history in college, mostly aquatic history. I worked for some public aquariums. I’ve had this nice career as a writer, as well.
[%image david float=right width=350 caption="David George Gordon"]
Were you a buggy kid?
No, actually. I was into nature, like birds and fish and all that other nifty stuff. I was raised in Chicago. I was a nature buff in the heart of the city, surrounded by cement. The neighborhood park or my own backyard was as wild as it got.
I’ve always been into invertebrates. I like rooting for the underdog — that’s definitely the insect world. As a grownup, I was intimidated about bugs at first. Really good writers and naturalists write about insects, going back to Charles Darwin’s day or earlier. It was intimidating to write about insects. Cockroaches were my big breakthrough in that.
When and how did the idea of preparing and eating insects take shape?
It was a composite of several ideas. First, I just like to cook. As a travel writer, I went to Thailand on a food tour. I took cooking classes, got escorted around markets where bugs were prominent. I had seen that before. In 1996, I went to an insect fair in Seattle, where they had crickets and Chex mix together. I’d never had that before, was adventurous enough to try it. That started the light bulb going.
I’d been writing a book prior to this one: The Compleat Cockroach — everything you want to know about cockroaches and then some. Cockroaches as food and as medicine. At that time, I’d collected a whole lot of scientific information from anthropology texts about other cultures that eat insects, and I had a fat folder of information.
The cookbook is a nice way of getting a lot of information out there without making it a scholarly text. The run-ups to the recipes, where I talk about how people keep crickets and bet on them, how people catch dragonflies in Indonesia — the human and nature interaction — is really my favorite part.
Books like Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat explore our unequal relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. So how do you try to get past the Western repulsion toward insects and eating them?
We have a real uphill battle. Disgusting, gross, and full of germs — that’s the way they’ve been cast. I like showing people insects have more heritage than something you swat at.
It depends on what we consider eating insects. In my food demos, for theater, I have some recipes where insects are prominent. With grasshopper kabobs, it’s impossible to overlook the fact you’re eating grasshoppers. When insects will work in a recipe is when they’re ground up — processed, in a way. They can call it animal protein, something I notice they do on pet food. They don’t tell you what animal it is. For all I know, it could be shrimp peelings.
A company called Chapul in Salt Lake City, they’re selling an energy bar in three different flavors made with ground-up crickets. They’re quite tasty. People have responded positively to their product at shows and local farmers' markets.
When I give a demo, I have a prologue leading up to it with humor, to make people question what they’re already eating. Eating chicken eggs is weird. Hot dogs? No one thinks that’s weird. It’s our comfort food. I start out to examine all the things in their own lives they eat that are perfectly acceptable. Why not insects?
In my cooking demo, I start with easy foods and work my way up to deep-fried tarantula spiders. The first thing is mealworms battered in tempura batter. When they’re done, they look more like Cheetos. I introduce chocolate-covered chapulines; people really like those. Scorpion (battered and fried) and a large tomato hornworm (a green caterpillar) are more of a challenge. Your stomach says "OK!" but your brain says, "Are you sure this is good for us?" If you have that dialogue for too long, that’s when you get sick. The idea of whole bugs is a high hurdle to leap over.
What about texture?
Often, they’re crunchy. When I do programs, there’s some degree of theater. I might use really large grasshoppers. You can really hear the crunch. That’s a lot of body armor.
Mario Batali has said that "'crispy' sells more food than a barrage of adjectives." Seems like with insects and their carapaces, you should have it made.
The texture of a lot of insects is not that great. But cicadas, when they emerge, when they get out of the ground, after four or five hours, they’re chewy, like soft-shell crab. Those are not crunchy. The other one that’s like that, and I’m surprised, is tarantula. They don’t have the same body armor a grasshopper would have. The legs of a tarantula spider are great — those have good texture.
If I serve crickets to people, someone will say, “I have an antenna or leg stuck between my teeth.” It’s something to complain about. They never say that about going to the movies and eating popcorn. Believe me, when I come back from the movies, it’s time to get out the dental floss.
How did you develop recipes?
When I first got my contract, Ten Speed Press said, "You have to give us evidence you have 25 recipes." I just started writing a list, based on puns: Pest-O, Three-Bee Salad. A lot of them come from scholarly texts and the cuisines of other cultures. I have an African termite stew.
What about issues with preparation?
Insects don’t take very long to cook — only a few minutes. It’s not like the Thanksgiving turkey. But because they do have this body armor that covers their eyes and breathing holes, they're sealed up, and when you heat them, there’s nowhere for the steam to go. Their body fluids will turn to steam. You can watch a bug inflate and deflate as you move it in and out of the heat. The body armor will change color, the same way a lobster will go from green to red when you cook it. A grasshopper goes from a yellowish to mahogany when well done.
It’s important to cook bugs all the way through. I don’t advise eating raw bugs. Some bugs are intermediate hosts for parasites; you don’t want that.
[%image bugcookies float=right width=400 caption="White Chocolate and Wax Worm Cookies"]
How did you get people to recipe-test?
When I wrote the book, I was living in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, Port Townsend. There were lots of eccentric people there following my career, and they were more than willing to be taste testers. One family were the bug-eating poster family — mom, dad, and two kids. They were very enthusiastic.
You’re a good sport about all this, but you’re a naturalist. What are the downsides of being known primarily as the Bug Chef, with antennae on your toque?
Andrew Zimmern said something like, "You can paint a hundred paintings and not be considered an artist, but when you cook an insect, you’re a bug chef for life."
I enjoy it. I’ve got show biz in my veins. I think I annoy real serious entomologists who work so hard and write studies. I have to look the other way when I get dissed by an entomologist.
I feel I should do something, or people will just know me as the bug chef, not for the book on seals and sea lions. But then I’ll get a call, and they’ll say, "Would you like to come to Trinidad and show us about bug cooking?" I went to Singapore to participate in their food festival, spent two weeks in Trinidad doing school assemblies, been to Times Square. It’s too good a deal. No one’s ever calling and saying, "We love seals and sea lions, can you come?" So I’m the Bug Chef.
For more about the photos in The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, check out this recent story on NPR's food-and-science blog, The Salt.
You’ve presented to elementary and grade schools. How do kids respond? Between TV anchors and kids, who’s more receptive?
I’ll go public: I hate TV anchors. They invite you on their show for the theater of it, they make it a soap opera. They ask, “How did you get here?” I’m thinking, "Well, you paid for my airplane ticket and hotel, and drove me to the studio in a limo." And then they wind up making the camera guy or student intern try the food. That’s part of the theater and humor of it, but if you invite some Portuguese chef and make bouillabaisse and nobody wants to eat it, that would be a total bomb.
Kids are way more receptive. Kids are clamoring to get up on stage and be the volunteer — “Pick me, pick me!” I’ve had parents come up to say, “I can’t believe you got my kid to eat a scorpion. I can’t get him to eat anything at home.” You probably aren’t serving scorpions.
How often are insects on the menu at your home?
I’m often working on new recipes, but it’s not part of my regular daily diet. But for special occasions or if somebody wants to come by and try something, I’ve got a freezer full of creatures at the ready, and I’m always happy to do that.
p(bio). Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner is the author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost. She keeps a website and a blog, and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and to Culinate.