As soon as I entered this sprawling suburban home, I was handed a glass of red wine and a sautéed tomato hornworm. "Want one?" urged Kevin Bachhuber, the co-host for tonight's dinner, with a view of twinkling Simi Valley below. The owner of the country's first farm to raise crickets exclusively for human consumption, he was visiting from Ohio. The light green grub, which spent its life gorging on leaves of the tomato plant, looked exactly like the plump caterpillar from a children's book. But tonight, the typically wiggly grub is quite literally grub, unmoving and shiny with olive oil.
I grabbed one, still sizzling, out of the pan, dropped it in my mouth and chewed.
"Not bad," I thought as the worm's chlorophyll-saturated body burst with a bite. If not for the texture, I could have been eating a bean sprout. Or maybe a fried green tomato. Some people even tasted a hint of soft-shell crab or shrimp.
By the time the pot luck–style dinner was served — mealworm Massaman curry, smoked cricket avocado toast, cricket powder–infused lentils and dessert-ish cricket-cajeta cookies — the dozen or so people gathered at the house of local edible-bug blogger Aly Moore had already feasted. They munched on handfuls of the sweet Rice Krispy–like dried bug secretion known as lerp (foraged from the mountains around L.A.), downed shots of mezcal sprinkled with salted dried termites (YouTuber Ari Fitz, who was also there, said it tasted like Fritos) and toasted more mezcal "to transgressive behavior," since eating insects is taboo in the cultures of nearly everyone who was in attendance.
But this was not extreme eating for extreme eating's sake. The private dinner held last week was the first unofficial gathering of L.A.'s contribution to a small but growing international movement of scientists, chefs, farmers, sustainability advocates and food fanatics who see edible insects as a future food, one that Western culture must quickly embrace in order to accommodate the needs of a growing world population.
"Crickets are literally a superfood," says Moore, who started her blog, Bugible, six years ago as a way to educate herself and others about the planet's more than 1,900 identified edible insects. "It has more protein than beef. It's a more complete amino acid, has more iron, more calcium, more Vitamin A, more micronutrients and requires less land, less feed and less water to produce than livestock. There's not one thing that's going to save the world, but this is a good step in the right direction."
According to a seminal report released in 2013 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world population will hit 9 billion people by 2050; in order to sustain all that life, our current food production will need to double. Their solution, mapped out in painstaking detail over 200 pages Entomophagy.
Entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is already a part of the traditional diet for more than 2 billion people on this planet, and through the use of cricket powder (the pulverized bodies of dried crickets), there is potential to feed many more. Protein bars made with cricket powder could save lives in famine-stricken areas. And in less dire environments, the same powder can replace whey protein in smoothies, be infused into cookies or brownies and even sprinkled atop salads or soups for an added nutritional boost.
In Los Angeles alone, bugs can already be found on the menus at more than a dozen restaurants, according to Entomophagy.com, which maintains listings of places that serve edible bugs. About half of those are Oaxacan, where grasshoppers can be found dried as a citrus-and-chile-covered bar snack or a taco stuffer. The rest of the restaurants serve edible bug dishes native to Korea, China, Thailand or Cambodia. Typhoon is the only restaurant in L.A. with its own separate bug menu; it serves Singapore-style scorpions on shrimp toast, stir-fried Taiwanese crickets and silkworm pupae with nine dipping sauces.
"There's really no reason why bugs aren't being eaten except for the 'ick' factor," Moore says, noting that the taste of bugs can vary from nutty and earthy to grassy and delicate. "Chefs at top-rated restaurants like Noma have used insects for a long time in their dishes. Insects have these crazy flavor profiles and you can do so many things with them. There's an entire culinary world out there that isn't even being touched."
The lack of edible insects found in the standard Western diet might change if the owners of Coalo Valley Farms have anything to do with it. Coalo is one of only a handful of cricket farms in the United States currently producing the high-yield bug exclusively for human consumption. And with an in-house aquaponics system and proprietary growing methodology, it's one of the most innovative operations yet.
"We were raised to believe that there are no implications of our actions today," says Coalo co-founder Elliot Mermel, who has a background in biology and pharmaceuticals. "I felt a responsibility as a millennial to do something better than just be a part of the problem. There's a lot of big talent in our age group, but they're focused on things that have no legacy. If I died tomorrow, I didn't want to be selling ad space."
After reading the FAO's report on entomophagy, Mermel and his fellow 20-something, co-founder Peter Markoe, decided to dive into micro-livestock, the academic term for farm-raised bugs. Knowing that L.A. is a trendsetting city with rich connections to Asia and Latin America (two places where edible bugs are already the norm), the two wrote a business plan and moved from New England to launch their plan in native cricket country.
Coalo opened last year in a nondescript industrial space in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. The flavor of the crickets produced there was described by one attendee of last week's edible bug dinner as "divine." Markoe and Mermel say their crickets — which are fed not pig feed, like so many others, but a variety of greens grown on the in-house aquaponics system — taste like "gamey nuts."
"If you like deer or other game, you'll love our crickets," Markoe says during a recent tour of the small operation, which has expanded to include a mealworm farm.
"I like to think of it as a nut you'd pick off a tree in a jungle," Mermel adds.
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After taking a tour of the heat-and-humidity-controlled incubator rooms where Coalo's crickets are born, mate and live to be their full 12-week-old grandpa selves (before they are humanely killed by putting them in a cold room), you can purchase the final products in their edible form: as a protein-packed powder, as whole dried bodies that crunch like an In-N-Out french fry left out for too long or, seasonally, as sweet, chocolate-coated bites.
They hope to find local stores willing to stock more edible bugs and more chefs willing to experiment with crickets and mealworms as a gourmet ingredient, adding another aspect to the forward-thinking menus for which L.A. is known.
"In lots of cultures crickets are good luck, but really, they're good luck for everybody," Markoe says. "Right now, crickets are good luck for humans and they're good luck for the future of our planet."