story by Lucy Lean
illustration by Andrea Wan
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Twelve.
“Delectable wax moth larvae…” the flyer read. The event was called Eat Bug Eat, and was hosted by a group called the Critter Salon. It made me curious. I love sucking the heads off of shrimp, one of the insect world’s many crustacean cousins. I swallow live oysters in one gulp. I tuck into a plate of snails dripping in garlicky butter every time I travel to France. The flyer promised insects with the flavor and texture of crispy fried bacon. So, how hard could it be?
I am not the only person to have this thought. The event, held at Machine Project in Los Angeles, is sold out. When I walk through the door, the first thing I see is a large box of wriggling worms. They’re called superworms. Their size fits the name. They are large, black, yellow, and brown, and there are a lot of them, so many that I can hear them rustling around in their habitat of newspaper and apple slices. A young woman behind the table lifts the newspaper and places her hand into a sea of writhing bodies. I am reminded of the snake scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “They don’t bite!” she says.
Whatever I may have thought, I am not going to be able to do this. Is everyone else feeling as queasy as I am?
A pretty blond woman in a bright blue low-cut T-shirt nonchalantly walks over, picks up a small white wax moth larva, and pops it into her mouth. a crowd gathers.
“When they are raw, they taste like piña colada,” she says of the live larvae. “They pop in your mouth. There’s an odd lingering taste, too. It’s not bad, just different.”
She is enjoying the attention. She opens her mouth wide so that the photographer from the L.A. Times can get a good closeup of the worms on her tongue. She may be a paying guest tonight, but she’s a professional bug eater by day. Her name is Jenny Newman, and she performs as the “insectivore” for a sideshow troupe. to demonstrate, she picks up one of the bigger mealworms and places it gently between her teeth. the worm is wriggling and its tail circles around a couple of times like a little propeller before she sucks it into her mouth and starts to chew.
“These are so much better,” Newman says, pointing toward the wax moth larvae. “It’s creamier. It’s almost like crème fraîche mixed with a roasted nut.”
At the Eat Bug Eat event, there are cookbooks on display full of recipes showing how to make soups, entrées, and desserts from different insects. I flick through Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, PhD, and come across a recipe for Mealworm Spaghetti that calls for half a pound of mealworms, roasted and diced. The pasta is cooked with onions, Italian herbs, and ricotta cheese and then topped with the mealworms.
If worms taste as good as Newman claims, could this really be a viable source of protein? The protein content is higher than that of red meat. Cultures all over the world eat bugs. Just not ours. The mealworms for the night were local — raised by small operations that usually sell to the bait or pet food market. I was informed that they could be raised even in a small apartment. Insects could be the ultimate slow food, open to anyone with a plastic box, some bran, and the courage to eat worms.
Insects could be the ultimate slow food, open to anyone with a plastic box, some bran, and the courage to eat worms.
I move over to the table at the end of the room where Phil Ross, the founder and director of Critter Salon, is cooking different varieties of worms on two burners. The superworms make a frantic clicking sound as their wriggling bodies hit the sides of a metal bowl. A large bottle of canola oil and some sea salt add a touch of normalcy to the scene. Ross heats some oil in a skillet and adds the worms. They writhe furiously for about a minute, then stop moving. He flips the pan to sauté them evenly. He adds some salt and flips the pan some more.“You can put them in the freezer to kill them first, but that changes the flavor,” he says. “This is meat: cruel, yet delicious!” Ross pours the fried worms over a kitchen towel to remove the excess oil and carries them over to the waiting tacos. the tacos are drizzled with lime-green roasted tomatillo salsa verde and sour cream, sprinkled with the fried worms, and topped off with lime juice, fresh cilantro, and salt.
“Why eat bugs?” I ask.
“Because they taste good,” he says with a smile, handing me a taco.
I take a deep breath and take a bite. The flavor is greasy and crunchy, with none of the promised bacon taste or texture. There’s no identifiable “bug” taste. I could be eating popped rice doused in lime and salsa verde.
Feeling emboldened, I go ahead and take a bite of a fried superworm. The texture reminds me of an overcooked French fry, but the flavor is nutty and crisp, with a subtle smoky flavor. So far, so good.
I move on to the crickets — cooked Oaxacan style with lime and chili, but still unmistakably crickets. I put one in my mouth, scrunch up my face, and bite down on it. I feel the legs breaking off on my tongue. I worry that cricket parts will get stuck in my teeth.
The excitement has officially worn off. It’s not that the bugs taste bad. It’s that they just aren’t especially meaty. They’re pure texture — tiny fried carcasses without much flavor. Imagine crunching on tiny prawns that have been deep-fried in their shells to the point where their meat is no more.
It all felt a little like the Emperor’s New Clothes. You get over the ick factor and beyond the hype, but for what? A mouthful of crunchy, greasy, fried shells. I’d eat bugs for survival but not for pleasure.
I drive home hungry.
LUCY LEAN is a Los Angeles–based bon vivant. She is the founder of LadlesandJellyspoons.com, editor of edible Los Angeles, and contributor to many publications, both new and old.
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, ANDREA WAN went to Emily Carr University of Art and Design, where she receIved a degree in film, video, and integrated media. With her strong passion in storytelling and image making, she went on to study illustration and design at Designskolen Kolding, Denmark. Andrea is currently working as an illustrator and visual artist in Vancouver, BC.