And why you should ignore that gag reflex and take this seriously — for one thing, they’re good!
Remember that week in late July when the grasshoppers came to town? There were swarms and swarms of them — enough to show up on weather radars and cloud the beams of light on the Strip and at gas stations. If you followed the news, you know the backstory: Unseasonably heavy rains brought a windfall of greenery, feeding a boom in the population of pallid-winged grasshoppers. When their seasonal migration brought them north, as it does every year, they came in droves. Drawn in by the mesmerizing lights of our 24-hour city, they perished in piles.
Is it strange that my first thought was, What a bunch of wasted protein? Maybe it’s because I’ve had food on the mind for a while now — I co-host Spicy Eyes, a podcast about food and culture in Las Vegas, with Kristy Totten (formerly of Nevada Public Radio). I’ve also eaten insects before, and don’t feel particularly repelled by them. This, combined with my growing awareness of a climate crisis that looms over every trip I make to the grocery store, made July’s buggy bounty feel like a wake-up call. Could this be a chance to investigate the foodie possibilities of a grasshopper swarm? I called Kristy, and she grabbed her recording equipment. We were going hopper hunting.
A friend directed us to the courtyard of a church on Maryland Parkway where they had seen the insects swarming, and so we headed there armed with tiny butterfly nets — a feeble choice, in retrospect. Grasshoppers are fast.
Other cultures around the world have developed much smarter methods of capturing these creatures: One is to put a light in a barrel at night and lure them in. Tribes in and around the Mojave traditionally corralled the hoppers with controlled fires, which had the added benefit of roasting them, too.
In fact, the more we looked into it, the more we learned that grasshoppers (and crickets and mealworms) are eaten in all corners of the world. I first tried grasshoppers while living in South Korea, where they are a nostalgic snack in rural pockets of the country. In Mexico they’re called chapulines, and are especially popular in the region of Oaxaca, where they’re toasted and seasoned with garlic, lime, and salt. In Uganda, a local species of grasshopper is called nsenene. They’re fried with onion and chili and sold as street food. In fact, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries have insect-eating traditions.
Which begs the question: Why don’t more folks in the U.S. eat grasshoppers? After all, they’re nutritious: Pound for pound, they have as much protein as lean beef, and with less fat. In 2013, the U.N. released a report encouraging people to eat more of the 1,900 species of edible insects to reduce world hunger and combat climate change. That same report cites studies showing that farmed insects release a fraction of the greenhouse gases that cows and pigs do (they don’t have the same kind of bacterial fermentation going on in their guts) and also use less water in their feed and processing.
Part of the dearth of insects in grocery stores might have something to do with human history: Insects were often seasonal harvests, while herds of domesticated meat animals were a much more reliable source of protein as humans settled into agrarian communities. For Westerners, this meant viewing insect eating as primitive. As Western influence expanded through colonial invasions into societies more dependent on seasonal foraging traditions, insect consumption was suppressed in both direct and indirect ways: American colonists displaced native people from their traditional lands, moved children into Indian schools away from elders who could pass on traditional foodways, and created reservations with supplies of flour and lard. And, more recently, in places like Mali, Western advisors encouraged the use of pesticides in cotton farming, which made the consumption of grasshoppers unsafe there.
Another reason so few in the West eat bugs has to do with the psychology of disgust. Context is really important to what we consider to be food and not-food: A lot of people in the U.S., for example, see bugs as pests in their homes and gardens. But if they’d grown up seeing insects on a taco or on a skewer, the context would be different — and that would affect whether they saw that grasshopper as disgusting or delicious.
Back at our hopper hunting, we discovered that Kristy has an extraordinary talent for catching grasshoppers — she’d catch five for every one that I and our friend, Desert Companion designer Brent Holmes, caught. (Sorry, Brent, I’m definitely sticking with Kristy when the apocalypse comes.) After about an hour of desperately leaping around the courtyard, we ended up with a few dozen bugs, and probably expended more calories than we’d gain by eating them.
I brought them home in an empty water jug. Several sources recommended letting them “poop it out” overnight, so you don’t end up with barnyard flavors in your food. But halfway through the night, overwhelmed by guilt, I threw some sprigs of parsley into their jug. In the morning, I washed them carefully in a tall-sided colander in an empty bathtub, to discourage escapees. And after much contemplation, I gave them a quiet death in my freezer.
To be sure they were safe to eat, I had also communicated with Dr. Mark Finke, a nutritional scientist based in Arizona, who has studied the nutritional value of the pallid-winged grasshopper. “Most insecticides are very quick acting, so as a rule of thumb if the insect is acting ‘normally,’ the odds that it contains any insecticide is vanishingly small,” he assured me. He suggested feeding the grasshoppers some human-grade greens or fasting them for a day to clear out any pesticides they might have consumed. “Even without that, I would not be hesitant to eat one,” he said. “Just make sure you cook them.”
So we did. We brought them to the home of our dear friend, brilliant cook, and occasional Desert Companion food writer Kim Foster, who agreed to the challenge immediately. She laid out ingredients for two recipes: A Southeast Asian-inspired, grasshopper-topped salad, and an Oaxacan-inspired chapulines taco. After pulling off their dry and tasteless wings, Kim deep-fried the grasshoppers with chili and lemongrass, seasoned them with soy sauce, sugar, and MSG, and laid them on a bed of pea shoots.
For the tacos, she seasoned the deep-fried hoppers with chili, salt, and lime, loading up tacos with queso fresco and fresh tomatoes. We sat down to eat — some of us with trepidation, others with gusto. But by the end, we all agreed: These hoppers were tasty. Frying them transformed the leggy bugs into crispy, golden cylinders that added texture and small bursts of savory zing to their dishes. I liked them best with lime.
“It’s crunchy, like a Cheeto,” Kim said reflectively. “There’s definitely this sort-of-nutty, sort-of-sesame base of burnt flavor that’s actually really good.” Kristy said it reminded her a little of burnt popcorn and the extra crispy parts of taco meat. “Which is the best part of a taco,” she added with a laugh. I said that it reminded me of a sesame-flavored extra-crispy pepperoni.
So. Would we eat them again? The vote was unanimous: Everyone at the table said they would. And, who knows, in some near future, we all might have to start losing our inhibitions about bugs as food. A report in medical journal The Lancet says that humans will need to reduce their consumption of meat and sugar by 50 percent in order to feed the planet in the coming decades.
Companies are stepping up, with new bug bars and cricket flours hitting the market every year — the edible insect market is predicted to be worth nearly $8 billion by 2030. I, for one, am here for the bug revolution. I know there’s no guarantee that eating insects is an environmental cure-all (and we should all be leery of greenwashing), but it certainly wouldn’t hurt for more people to take grasshopper tacos a little more seriously.
It might not be as hard as you think. “It’s amazing how quickly the taboo disappeared for us,” Kristy mused after our grasshopper meal. “Like, within an hour of just standing here and handling them. And by the end, we’re all fine with it.”
“It really is about socialization, right?” Kim pointed out. “If you had eaten bugs your whole life, you would be like, ‘Oh, of course I’m eating this, it’s amazing. Why aren’t you eating it?’
To hear the Spicy Eyes podcast about bugs as food, visit spicyeyespod.com