Once, when I was 6 years old, my family and I stopped at a drive thru off the highway between Las Vegas and Palmdale, California. While my dad told the intercom that we wanted tacos, burritos and quesadillas, I looked out the window and into the summer night. In the glow of the street lamps, a manic plume buzzed. The lamps had their own halo of swarming moths, grasshoppers and other things with wings.
After we got our food, we parked the car and listened to country music. My older sister unwrapped her burrito and took a bite. In between my own first bites into a taco, I noticed she stopped eating. She now had her fingers in her food, fishing around for something. When she pulled her fingers out, she told us she found something. She held a tiny, jointed leg.
We bagged our food and ditched it in the nearest Dumpster, fodder for the humming clouds around us.
Bugs don’t belong in food or around it. They don’t belong in the house. Cockroaches infest the worst episodes of “Kitchen Nightmares,” and ants and wasps hold summer hostage. In the poetry of Edward Gorey, monsters with a million eyes and legs come creeping out of cocoons.
Two groups of students at UM spent the last semester trying to combat the taboos of entomophagy, or eating bugs, as part of the Franke Global Leadership Initiative.
Kaitlyn Anderson, a resource conservation major and part of a team of six, created a curriculum to introduce elementary school students to entomophagy. Anderson, hopes that by catching kids still in their larval state, the curriculum she and her colleagues developed can prevent any taboos about munching on crickets or mealworms from developing at all.
“It’s easier to work with kids, rather than try and convince adults to eat bugs,” Anderson said.
Despite the efforts of health officials, all U.S. citizens eat insects, if involuntarily. According to Scientific American, the average American will eat two pounds of bugs ground into coffee, peanut butter and other processed foods, along with whatever crawls into our mouths while we sleep.
In Venezuela, however, 5-year-olds wander around the jungle digging out Goliath Bird-Eating Spiders to fry up for a quick snack. In Ugandan bars, fried grasshoppers make for a salty snack between beers. Markets in Oaxaca, Mexico, offer piles of seasoned grasshoppers to be sold by the pound.
In a 2013 report released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 80 percent of the countries on Earth have insects somewhere on their menus. Only Europe, Canada and the United States — besides crab, lobster and shrimp —keep bugs off their plates.
In that same report, the FAO analyzed the nutritional content of insect diets across the planet. It concluded with saying that insects may be a way to feed a world population that’s slated to hit 9 billion by 2050. Since only 2 billion currently utilize bugs as a steady food source, it’s going to take a lot of convincing.
According to Bloomberg, livestock takes up 41 percent of the land in the United States, with 59.7 million acres of Montana dedicated to farming and ranching.
With all this in mind, I decided to embrace a week of eating bugs. I swore off meat in favor of chitin. I just needed to figure out what the hell I was doing. After online dieting message boards failed me, I turned to the professionals.
Laura Granlund works from the Lommasson Center as a dietitian. For two and a half years, she’s helped students address concerns with their diets. When I approached her about going on bugs for a week, she saw no nutritional issues whatsoever, so long as I didn’t have any shellfish allergies.
“Gram for gram, the protein content of insects, particularly crickets and mealworms, which are the most common you can get, are very similar to animal protein in both protein, fat and minerals, so really you’re just kind of replacing one for the other,” she said.
According to Granlund, the fiber content of crickets and other insects, combined with their protein, make them an ideal nutritional substitute for meat.
Granlund told me there was nothing wrong with red meat if eaten in a balanced diet with fiber. I’ve built my life around red meat: sausage for breakfast, beef jerky for a snack, steaks for dinner. A fast food run usually ended with a quarter-pounder and a couple chicken nuggets in my gut. After a tally, I ate four pounds of beef in the week leading up to my switch to bugs. I thoroughly contributed to the USDA’s announcement that U.S. citizens ate a record amount of meat in 2018.
I left Granlund with no second thoughts about making the jump to arthropods. The only concern she had was the lack of veggies and fiber in my current diet. I added beans and radishes to my grocery list.
“Your gut bacteria like lots of different plant fiber, or in this case, insect fiber,” Granlund said.
With both the dietitian’s and my editors’ blessing, I turned to the only place that could supply a week’s worth of insects in the heart of this brutal Montana winter: the internet. Using the FAO report as a consumer guide, I budgeted myself for a week’s worth of money spent at the supermarket. I had two bug dealers: Entomarket, out of Maine, and Cowboy Cricket Farms in Belgrade, Montana.
After I clicked the checkout button, I had two different brands of crickets, a pound of pure cricket powder, roasted mealworms, four vacuum-sealed zebra tarantulas, a bag of locusts and a tub of Mexican-seasoned grasshoppers. Not that I needed all that for the week, but once you get locked into a serious bug collection, the idea is to take it as far as you can.
By the first night of my new diet, only the crickets and cricket powder from Cowboy Cricket Farms arrived. After eating only some apples and a bit of black bean soup during the day, I tore open a package of whole crickets and poured them into my hand.
“Eating is a super personal thing,” said Trevor Lowell, the director of sustainability at UM Dining, about Western attitudes toward eating bugs. “You’re taking something and putting it in your mouth.”
I picked up a cricket and put it in my mouth. The cricket, roasted and lightly salted, had an airy crunch to it like popcorn and tasted like Corn Nuts. After eating three or four more, I didn’t think I’d miss bacon quite so much.
“It’s not at all unusual for mammalians to survive off bugs. Every year, grizzly bear populations here in Montana live off grub worms for a season,” Lowell said.
According to Lowell, only the “yuck” factor and availability have kept bugs off plates in the West. Those cultures that do indulge in entomophagy have done so for centuries. Although hopeful that insects will become a viable resource for feeding a human population, Lowell said producing insects as a food source is still in its infancy. Meanwhile, the meat industry in the United States has made incredible progress in providing more food at a cheaper price than at any other time in history.
A few days into my diet, the rest of my food arrived.
The locusts piled onto my plate when I dumped them out of the bag. For the first time in the week, I felt intimidated. They had wings, mandibles and big, blue, bulbous eyes. When I picked one up from the plate, it stayed in my hand for several minutes. The crickets went down easier because I didn’t feel them staring back at me. It tasted like hay or dried leaves. I could forget what I was chewing on until a leg stabbed my gums.
Taking a dieting tip from the New Testament, I tried St. John’s method of pouring honey over the locust’s body. It helped with the taste, but it also glued a wing to the top of my mouth.
Only one bug bit back. The zebra tarantulas came in clear plastic packs, shriveled and seemingly harmless. With every other insect, I could pop them into my mouth out of the package. Although not particularly tasty, none of them caused any physical damage. The tarantula leg I chewed on, however, unleashed an itchy, irritating assault that spread from my tongue to my throat.
After nursing my mouth with a bit of tea with honey, I turned to the internet to learn that the hairs of a tarantula act as an irritant to would-be predators. Using a lighter, I shaved my tarantulas and tossed them into some oil to fry. They smoldered and crumbled, but went well with a bit of ginger and garlic.
Cricket powder made anything possible during the week. With the powder, I’d made biscuits, pancakes and a pie crust. An incredible resource, so long as it’s blended with at least some all-purpose flour. One morning, in a rush, I had no time to make any real food. Thinking quickly, I dumped a few spoonfuls of cricket power in a glass of water and gave a quick stir. It reminded me of pond water.
Another GLI group created a tool kit consisting of regulations for government officials and best practices for business owners on using bugs as food. This will have the benefit of familiarizing government officials with bugs as a food source and give consumers a safety net to fall into if they have any reservations about where their cricket cookie came from.
“It’s really hard to build a business when the food that you’re producing isn’t even considered food,” team member and conservation major Freya Sargent said.
At the end of the week, I became conscientious of what I’d done to myself. In all the excitement to brag to my friends and family about munching on bugs, I neglected a primary rule of dieting. I didn’t source my food. I didn’t know the process that brought them from larva to biscuit. I needed to go to the source, and it was only a few hours away.
Kathy and James Rolin started Cowboy Cricket Farms from their home in Bozeman. While a student at Montana State University, a documentary filmmaker introduced Kathy Rolin to crickets as a food source. After convincing her husband, they started a business out of their home.
Rolin, a mother of three and Coast Guard veteran, did not anticipate selling anything beyond bulk packages of cricket powder. After attendees to MSU’s annual Bug Buffet, which was held on Valentine’s Day this year, kept pocketing her cricket cookies, she realized she had a market to tap into. She convinced her husband to enter a market valued at nearly $500 million, according to Persistence Market Research, a firm that analyzes global markets and trends.
In 2017, they won UM’s John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge and a hefty award of $20,500 dollars. With a headquarters in Belgrade and three employees, they now have eight farmers producing $9,000 worth of crickets every month. They also received a grant to develop a “super cricket,” which would be higher in fatty acids and omega threes than what you find crawling in the grass. With competitors like Aspire in Texas and Don Bugito out of San Francisco, they’ve managed to create enough interest to be short on supplies for orders every month.
One of the farmers now raises crickets full time after quitting her job as a waitress.
“Crickets work well, first because they’re better than cockroaches, and people don’t really find them cute like butterflies,” she said, while spreading out a layer of frozen crickets onto a tray.
Rolin loads up to 14 pounds worth of crickets into a dehydrator. Depending on the orders for the day, the roasted crickets will either soak in one of the flavor blends, or be ground into powder for wholesale or cookies. Cowboy Cricket Farms has shipments across the country and the world, with orders going to Mexico, Chile, Russia and Lithuania.
“We’ve got a huge demand. Right now , we’re just trying to work on the supply,” Rollin said.
I left Cowboy Cricket Farms with samples of its chocolate chip cookies and smokey-flavored whole roasted crickets.
The following Sunday, I used up the last of the cricket powder for pancakes. I scraped bits of tarantula out of my frying pan while rinsing it under hot water, and wiped locust legs out of my kitchen sink. After a last sweep through my cabinet, I saw that I still had enough seasoned grasshoppers to last me into the next week.
The week didn’t kill me, didn’t even hurt me. I spent $30 over budget, but most of that went to shipping costs. Although I look forward to the day a professional can prepare me a tarantula, I still went to sleep with devious thoughts of ribs from Notorious P.I.G the next day.