Let me tell ya, the things I do to get a story… I’ve slam-danced, spelunked, bungee-jumped, stayed awake through an entire Third District Congressional Forum and stopped at Wall Drug. But I think you’ll agree that on Saturday night, I went above and beyond the call of duty when I ate a two-inch mealy worm. Raw.
Not to mention cricket cacciatore, roasted cricket marsalla with angel hair pasta, cricket bread with honey bee bruschetta, shiitake mushroom caps stuffed with mealy worms, chocolate cricket torte and honey-glazed ants with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
It was all part of the menu at the first annual Buggette Feast at the Forest Resource Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro, Minnesota. About 50 people attended the daylong event, most of them willingly. (Some of the staff didn’t seem so sure.) The day included a nature hike and insect-eating educational program by Vermont naturalist and author Rhan Flatin, followed by a social hour with wine and hors d’oeuvres, dinner and a slide show.
Flatin said he developed a taste for bug cuisine in Mexico and Japan and wants to open North American minds to a new dining experience. Though some are poisonous and others just not very tasty, he said there’s a whole world of insect gastronomical delights just waiting for the adventurous eater. In fact, he said, insects – a good source of protein – are commonly eaten in many other parts of the world already. But cultural food phobias mean they’re off limits at the American dinner table.
You’d have never guessed it at Saturday night’s event, as dozens of normal-looking Midwesterners dined on creepy-crawly bugs.
“In 15 years of programs here, I’ve never seen a group that’s bonded like this,” said Joe Deden, executive director of the center, a private, non-profit educational corporation dedicated to promoting the responsible use, renewal and appreciation of natural resources.
“You’ve pushed your limits,” Flatin said after the meal. “You picked up a grasshopper, you looked it in the eye and you popped it in your mouth.”
True, although the bugs were pretty well disguised, what with the prep work by center staffer Linda Wead (cleaning five-gallon containers of mealy worms and more than 3,000 crickets) and entrée preparation by Rochester chef Kevin Huff (substituting insects for chicken or beef in favorite dishes from his Broadstreet Café). In dips, sauces or stuffings, and baked into breads, if you didn’t know you were eating them, you wouldn’t have guessed it.
There were a few exceptions. The roasted crickets on the angel hair pasta, for example, were whole and very visible – almost an inch long.
“I’m giving the crickets to my husband and eating the pasta,” said Magdalene Mook of Lexington, Kentucky. “If I can’t see the big bugs, I’m OK.”
Nine-year-old Kirk Strissel had no problem eating any of the insects. In fact, he asked his parents to bring him to the Lanesboro event for his birthday. The Byron, Minnesota boy said his favorite were the bees he found and munched during the nature hike. He didn’t like the “crunchy crickets” on the pasta – not because they were crickets, but because he didn’t care for the roasted taste.
“I ate ants, a worm type thing, ant eggs, a fried grasshopper and larva and crickets,” Alice Deden, the eight-year-old niece of the of the center director, proclaimed proudly. Unlike Strissel, she liked her crickets. “They tasted like dried nuts,” she said.
Kids weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves. “I’m a pretty adventurous food guy, but I hadn’t tried insects before,” said Frank Wright of Lanesboro. “I was kind of surprised it came so naturally.”
Scott Strissel, Kirk’s dad, said he was pleasantly surprised by the sweet burst of flavor he got from some ants that Flatin found foraging in the woods with the group that afternoon.
Me, I liked everything I tried. It was a little strange to roll up a forkful of pasta with a big black bug on it, but if I didn’t think too much about what I was putting into my mouth, it tasted just fine. Kind of like dried nuts, like Alice Deden said. Besides, I had put in a long day of bike riding and I was pretty hungry. So hungry, I guess, that I could eat a cricket.
I had only one regret as I drove home on scenic Highway 16 along the Root River. I really wanted to report back to you that something – anything – on the menu tasted like chicken. Alas, it just wasn’t to be.
Although the raw mealy bug I popped into my mouth in the kitchen after the dinner was over – all for the sake of journalism, of course – well, it did taste a little bit like shrimp.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: One of the best parts about being a journalist is the chance to travel and meet new people and experience new things. So when your editor asks you to hop in the car and head to a small town in Minnesota to eat insects, you jump at the opportunity. The weirder, the better, I always say. This story was originally published in my weekly column for the Live! section of the La Crosse Tribune in 1997. -Starling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in a small Wisconsin blue-collar town, Mike Starling ditched the assembly line for a long, sometimes circuitous career working with words, sound and images. His original music is heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks, and his stories and photos have been featured in books, films, mags and other media. Among his other interesting career moves, he has edited a beer magazine, played bass in a reggae band and sold potato chips door-to-door. Inspired by the life-altering events of 2020, he launched a year-long web-based project called I Remember Travel in January 2021.
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I REMEMBER TRAVEL
Journeys in sight and sound by Mike Starling
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