Cricket orzo and spider tempura are on the menu at Chef David George Gordon's cooking demonstration. "Make sure you get a cricket," he advises, as assistants dish up samples. Gordon, 64, is known in entomophagy circles as "the bug chef," and his demo is taking place at the Natural History Museum one balmy late spring day, when the air and grass and trees are a veritable buffet of edible creepy crawlies.
Next up: deep-fried tarantula. Gordon removes the abdomen (urticating hairs, prickly) and dips the remainder in tempura batter (organic, Whole Foods).
People have an easier time eating bugs, he finds, if the bugs aren't staring back at them. A nice, crispy coating helps.
With this crowd, he need not have bothered. Eleven volunteers rush up to try eight spider legs. "I love California," he says. "We've got real can-do kind of people. I do the same program in New York and people are like, 'Why would I want to eat a bug?'?"
Why, indeed. To Gordon, the reasons are clear — bugs are a cheap, abundant source of protein; they're easier on the planet than, say, raising cattle. And they're yummy.
After the demonstration, a few audience members come over to beg for leftovers. "This is what just came out of a scorpion," Gordon says, poking at a bit of insect on an oily paper towel. "It's goo. A scorpion has a really slow digestive system. In the body is the goo. And the goo is good. We still have tarantula left. Would anyone like some?"
A guy pushes his friend forward and says, "He would love some. And I would love some."
"Let's do this," says the reluctant friend.
The guys chew with the front of their teeth. "It's funky," one concludes. It tastes, he decides, like crab.
Which does he prefer, crab or tarantula?
"This is only the second time I've had tarantula," he says. "The first time, it was in rolls. I couldn't really taste the bug." Quantity of meat being equal — spiders, after all, are relatively small — he'd probably pick tarantula.
Gordon agrees. "You know how people say, 'It's your birthday and you can have anything you want?' I'd choose either lobster tails or tarantula. But you'd have to have three of them. Then you'd have 24 legs." He recommends dipping them in plum sauce.
A writer by trade, Gordon is the author of 18 science-themed books (his Field Guide to the Slug was called "gripping" by The New York Times). In college, he studied biology, with an emphasis on fish. Though he has written plenty about marine life, he notes, "No one ever says, 'Tell me more about seals and sea lions.' They always want to know about the edible bugs."
Gordon wrote the original The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook in 1998. He'd just published a book on cockroaches and had been reading a lot of anthropology journals, researching cultures that eat insects. "Rather than do a big preachy thing about why insects are important to us," he recalls, "I realized I could get a lot of that message into a program about why you should be eating bugs."
Most of the dishes featured in the cookbook are his inventions. "In Bali, they eat dragonflies in coconut curry. So I made my own recipe from that. Some of them are just bad puns, like 'pest-o.'?"
Sixteen years later, the cookbook is still in print and Gordon, who is based in Seattle, has done cooking demonstrations all over the world. "I keep going, 'I gotta do something else. People just know me as the bug guy.' But then I keep getting, 'Would you like to come to Trinidad and do a demo?' And I'm like, 'Yeah! I'm the bug guy!'?"
No, the bug guy does not eat bugs every day. More like a couple times a week, he says — roasted Oaxacan grasshoppers, usually, with a beer. "Those are really nice with chili and lime."
Just then, the gentleman who ate the tarantula interrupts: "Just to let you know. The abdomen, once you flip open the top? It was full of meat."
"Oh, great!" Gordon says.
Today's bugs, apparently, were ethically sourced. The crickets came from a cricket ranch in Louisiana. The spiders (farm-raised) and scorpions (hand-caught) came from a guy in Arizona. Gordon doesn't like telling people to collect from the wild, as many species are threatened.
People's objections to eating bugs tend rather toward the psychological than the ecological. Bugs are gross. Bugs are poisonous. "Actually, cooking them kills the venom, which is a protein," Gordon argues. "Heat denatures the protein." In China, they serve whole scorpions with stingers attached, and no one drops dead.
Allergies, really, are the main concern. He advises those with shellfish sensitivities to steer clear: "They're distantly related. They're arthropods."
While Gordon is signing books, a longtime fan named Darius comes over. "Before, you were doing some crackers with sour cream and ants on the top," Darius says. "My question is, why do some ants, when you eat them, taste really ugly?"
Formic acid, Gordon answers. The amount of acid varies by ant. Carpenter ants, for instance, have a lot of formic acid, which makes them bitter. Certain Costa Rican ants, on the other hand, taste citrusy. "Lime ants, they call them."
Darius nods. "Sometimes when it's too acidic, I put sugar." He once ate some Colombian ants with a distinct barbecue flavor. "Like, mesquite?"
"Oh yeah," Gordon says. "In Colombia, ants are like having popcorn in a movie theater."
Darius returns again to the crackers with sour cream and black ants. Their flavor haunts him. "It was like caviar."
"Those ones I get from China," Gordon says. He reaches for a small bottle with what looks like dirt in it and says, "Hold out your hands. This is really good stuff." He sprinkles out a teaspoon or so of dried ants. Darius nibbles on them thoughtfully.
"They have a complicated flavor. Smell it," Gordon says. "Like soy sauce, right? It's their natural odor." He does a pear salad with Changbai ants and a shallot balsamic vinaigrette.
For tomorrow's demo, he's doing centipedes from Vietnam. "They're about 10 inches long."
Gordon, who is an adventurous eater to begin with, was never squeamish about eating bugs. But he does allow for a tension between what the eye sees and what the stomach wants.
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"Scorpions look like lobsters or shrimp. They look familiar. So my stomach is not going, 'Warning! Warning!'" When the time came to eat some enormous green caterpillars, however, even his stomach resisted.
"There's like a dialogue that goes on between the head and stomach," he says. "?'Are you sure we're supposed to eat this?' 'Yeah, go ahead!' 'You sure?' You have that dialogue for too long, you'll get sick and throw up. The stomach always votes last. It has veto power."