Guess Who’s Hopping to Dinner

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Let’s be clear here. I hate bugs. I loathe bugs.

I was surprised by feeling excited at the prospect of chowing down on some creepy crawlies, but the occasion still called for a stiff drink. I sat down at the bar at Oyamel, one of Jose Andres’ hip D.C. restaurants, and promptly ordered a gin and tonic.

With a feeling of mild trepidation, I ordered some Tacos de Chapulines. Grasshopper tacos.

I sat back and awaited my fate.

At 3 Quarks Daily, Quinn O’Neill lauds the power of entomophagy (eating insects) in reducing human consumption of animal products—a practice that many, including O’Neill, see as a drain on our environment and our health. Quinn calls Western aversion to eating insects as “irrational.” Eating insects, entomophagists argue, is a much more sustainable source of nutrition. High in protein, low in fat, what more could you want?

But, of course eating insects is nothing new for humankind. Insects figure into the traditional cuisine of many cultures. The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern eats them, and apparently, so does Salma Hayek. Chapulines are an ingredient in many Oaxacan dishes, and baskets of the crunchy creatures are sold in Oaxacan markets for use in tacos, tlayudas or to be eaten alone as a salted snack.

When my steaming tacos arrived, I thought there had been a mistake. The grasshoppers looked like a mound of finely shredded pork piled atop of a liberal dollop of guacamole. Perplexed, I asked the bartender, “You chop them up?”

He looked at me like I was demented.

“They’re farm-raised,” was his response.

“Yeah, but you chop them up, right?” I persisted.

“No, they’re whole.”

I picked up a single piece from my taco and held it up, examining it carefully.

“They’re baby grasshoppers!” I exclaimed triumphantly.

At this point the bartender decided to leave the crazy intern to his arthropods.

I dutifully tried a bite. Then another. These were tasty. Crispy, spicy, a hint of citrus—it was better than some of the other tacos I had tried. Though the legs do tend to get stuck in your teeth. I downed the entire taco and almost ordered another one, until the look of horror on my companion’s face gave me pause.

However, I didn't feel I had completed my assignment yet. Amanda had asked me to find out what grasshoppers tasted like, and the ones in the taco had been spiced and sautéed in shallots, tequila and all manner of other delicious things. I needed the real deal. I needed to try these farm-raised little critters in the raw. I asked the bartender if he could provide such a thing. He seemed skeptical, but said he would try.

I waited and waited, and finally, with a furtive glance in either direction, the bartender surreptitiously placed a little bowl in front me and turned away without a word.

I scooped out a cluster of raw grasshoppers and stuck them in my mouth. They were chewy, without the crunch I expected from insects—apparently that came from being sautéed until crispy. They tasted rather sour and grassy (you are what you eat, I guess?), but not bad, reminiscent of a mild citrus fruit. What I had mistaken for a squeeze of lemon on my taco earlier had, in fact, been the natural flavor of the grasshopper.

Throughout the evening I had tried to make my dinner companion taste some of the little creatures. He gave in just before the end of the meal, having had enough of my cajoling. He delicately placed a grasshopper on his tongue, swallowed and washed it down with a deluge of ice water (though perhaps Sauvignon Blanc would have been a natural pairing).

“That was gross,” he declared.

I guess grasshoppers aren’t for everyone.

Guest writer Brandon Springer is spending the summer at Smithsonian Magazine through an American Society of Magazine Editors internship.

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