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It depends on the bug

By Staff | Sep 2, 2016

I’ve been reading about the foodways of cultures unlike ours, who receive their protein from sources we wouldn’t consider.

Elsewhere in the world, the cow is either revered as sacred, or is simply scarce. Chickens, pigs and goats are more abundant, but expensive. Inland cultures cannot depend on fish. From Central America to Africa to the Far East, insects provide animal protein in foods that some consider to be delicacies.

“Ewwww,” I hear you say.

Me too. I’ve never been bold enough to try even a chocolate-covered ant, much less chapulines a la Mexicana, an Oaxacan dish of grasshoppers sauteed with onions, jalapenos and tomatoes, then topped with cheese and avocado.

Or African toasted termites. Or witchetty grubs, a favorite of Australian Aborigines.

People familiar with dishes like these describe the critters as crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Ew, ew, ew.

Demographers posit that by 2050, the world’s population with be nine billion, or two billion more than it is now, with concentrations in some of the poorest parts of the globe.

All these people will need to be fed. And there simply will not be enough mammal meat, or even fish and chicken, to sustain us, experts project.

So, these days, agriculture students at large universities are studying bugs in a new way. Whereas in the past, entomology focused on insect eradication and control, new courses are emerging in entomophagy, or the sustainable agriculture of edible bugs.

With bugs, unlike other farmed creatures, millions of individuals can be raised in a small space, and bugs tend to like crowding and dirt — serious problems for other farmed creatures.

Additionally, insects are expert at turning waste into protein. Natural recyclers, they convert manure, cardboard and other garbage into the food they need. Being cold-blooded, they do not expend energy keeping warm, as cattle do.

So more calories are converted to the growth and development of their bodies.

Ounce for ounce, a pound of grasshoppers has three times the nutrients as a pound of beef.

In parts of the world with chronic malnutrition, international development programs have historically and ironically focused on eradicating creatures such as locusts and grasshoppers — which provide perfect protein — to protect fields of millet, wheat, barley, sorghum and corn — which do not. Additionally, pesticide-poisoned bugs easily make it into the food stream.

In gleaming laboratories far from the hungry hordes, food scientists are now experimenting with turning insects into patties like chicken nuggets, or drying and grinding them into protein-packed flour.

Perhaps, as we already do with escargot, we will just get over our aversion to bugs and simply learn to enjoy them.

Which brings me to crabs. Maryland blue crabs. The epitome of Chesapeake Bay cuisine, on which I dined last week.

At a paper-covered picnic table in a wood-paneled bar just south of Rehoboth Beach, my family enjoyed a banquet of crustaceans, in a scene we have reenacted for more than 50 years. Boiled red, seriously dusted with Old Bay seasoning and hot from the pot, a dozen crabs landed on the table and the picking began.

Experienced pickers know to begin by raising the tab on the crab’s underbelly, then lifting the shell from its back. My father especially enjoys the tiny deposits of crab fat located in the tips of the shell, but most people think it’s icky. Everyone knows to remove the lungs, because they are inedible, but many people do not know that the “mustard,” or intestines that are located between the two halves of the crab’s body, are completely edible and delicious.

Aren’t crabs just the spiders of the sea? They’re arthropods, same as land spiders, scorpions and cicadas. In fact, more than 80 percent of animal life on earth and nearly every insect falls under Phylum Arthropoda.

Back at the beach, a graveyard of empty shells piled up on our paper-covered picnic table. From the generous lump backfin meat to the tiny slivers of flesh in the smallest crab legs, we went for it all.

By the end, our hands were stained red and made fragrant from the spice, several alcoholic beverages had been consumed and we had enjoyed a grand old time.

Who said we don’t eat bugs?