Wednesday, November 02, 2011

What's for Dinner? Bugs!

So I helped cook up a very nice Halloween dessert a few days ago, something sure to delight and horrify even the most implacable kid. The recipe? Take one big scoop of ghostly white vanilla ice cream. Pour on a bloody avalanche of ruby-red syrup made from prickly pear (the spiny, dark-red cactus fruit called tuna in Mexican markets), as bright as the outtakes of a Richard Ramirez flick. Then came the coup de grace, the thing to separate the mere Butterfingers-eaters from the true aficianados of the deep-down Halloween scare.

I'm talking, of course, about the worms. The caramelized mealworms, to be precise, crunchy and sweet but absolutely undisguised in their utter mealworm-ness. A bloody sundae topped with actual candied worms: does it get any spookier than that?

Mealworms, it seems, are the larval form of the Tenebrio molitor, the darkling beetle. They're common in California, where they were long part of the diet of native peoples in the region. They were the final creepy-crawly delight in a night of Edible Insects and Other Rare Delicacies at the Headlands Center for the Arts last week. The event, part of a well-publicized trend towards insect-eating was conceived and run by Monica Martinez, a Mexican artist who now runs a special-events company called Don Bugito, specializing in edible insects, and chef/bioartist Phil Ross, founder of CRITTER, a very vocal champion of entomophagy. To Martinez and Ross, eating insects isn't a novelty or a gross-out dare; instead, they see the long culinary history in many countries and cultures, where bugs may have started out as a subsistance food in places where any readily available source of fat and protein was prized, wriggly or not, but later became prized as delicacies. Several reporters were on hand during our two days of kitchen prep for this dinner, and both Martinez and Ross spoke with great sincerity about the deliciousness of the bugs they were roasting, frying, and pan-toasting. As anyone who has lived in a New York City apartment knows, insects are an abundant, green and renewable resource; they will be here, rubbing their six or eight legs together and feasting in the back of our cabinets long after factory-farming of bigger four-legged creatures has exhausted the resources of the planet. (Even bedbugs, scourge of urban living, are edible, Martinez insists.)

The five-course tasting meal that Martinez and Ross came up with featured bugs (some brought in from Mexico, others local) in every course. There were no giant scorpions to saw through; this was not knife-and-fork eating. The insects--crickets, wax-moth larvae, fly eggs--were used more as garnish and flavorings than solid entrees. In fact, a few of the artists in attendance wished the insects had been more in evidence. What's the point of a bug dinner if you're not crunching down on wings and antennae? The plates were daintily sized, too, just a few bites per course. ("We're going out for a burger later," one artist whispered to me as she toyed with the last few mealworms on her plate.)

For anyone that was feeling a little squeamish, though, drink pairings came with every course, from worm-salted Mezcal Factoria del Santos to wash down the lake-fly fritters to honey wine spritzers with the wax-moth larvae and corn custards.

And while the $50-a-plate attendees may have the more elegant experience most enthusiastic bug eaters turned out to be the squadron of servers and volunteers who came out to help, many connected to Martinez through her work at La Cocina. (Don Bugito is part of La Cocina's small-business incubator program, receiving mentorship, business advice, and reduced kitchen-use rates.) Working hard for free throughout the evening, they got their reward at the end of the night, when all the extra food was piled on platters in the middle of the kitchen. No dainty portions here: the mostly-twentysomethings grabbed plates and dug in, popping Tecates and piling their plates high with avocado, corn, and zucchini speckled with escamoles fried in brown butter and tomatillo-jicama-cricket salad, munching with the same enthusiasm they'd bring to a super carnitas burrito from El Farolito. Scary? No way.

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