Traveling under the Entomophagy Rainbow at the Brooklyn Bug Fest.
NOTE: This is Part I of a two-part exposé of the Brooklyn Bug Fest, a celebration of entomophagy unfurling in Brooklyn this past Labor Day Weekend. Part II, an interview with some Bug Food Entrepreneurs, will run next week.
Eating is one of the ways that humans exert dominance over other species: We can eat you. By this, we prove our superiority.
But when it comes to bugs, the calculus breaks down: we can eat you, technically. But we have relegated most of your nutritional value beneath our contempt. We wouldn’t eat you even if we could: the ultimate dis.
It was from this perspective that Jeffrey Yoon, a proselyte on a par with Saul, staged the Brooklyn Bug Fest this past Labor Day weekend, curating three full days of bug-eating activities, bug husbandry lore, and insectivorous challenges aimed at variously shocking, normalizing, and obscuring the eating of bugs within a trial demographic. And if the sugar coating to all of this activity was a sincere and utopian vision of reckless Mankind eating bugs as nutritive consideration to the basic issue of too many of us, trust me that the pill we swallowed was equal parts cricket meal and dried worms.
The Festival was firmly erected on a platform of Environmental Largess: Bugs—-crickets, especially—-offer up a “target protein” that is denser than anything else under consideration in the food chain. If we are merely creatures craving protein, then the thinking goes, then we are fools to ignore bugs.
Moreover, there is precedent: after all, 2 billion people in this world already avidly consume bugs, in myriad forms: And to this, I can personally attest.
I grew up in Nairobi in the late 70s. As avatars of a soft empire, we were allowed servants, and Nathan (emphasis on the second syllable) was our Shamba-man, or Gardener. One night, he came to the window of my room, and beckoned me out: It was the Short Rains season of October, and the termites were on the move. They had sprouted comically large and flimsy wings, and congealed around the light affixed to the side of our house. “Kumbe Kumbe,” Nathan enthused, and demonstrated how to snatch these lumbering flyers from the air and devour them like the freshest of all sushi, casting aside the papery wings as one might discard the tail of a shrimp.
I was young, and attraction was still a stronger pull than repulsion. I ate many of these beasts, as much for the Never-Mind-The-Bollocks joy of eating bugs as for any overwhelming flavor spell. As I recall, they were tiny, juicy, tiny, and altogether innocuous, as challenging on the palette as the inchworm on your apple.
The Brooklyn Bug Fest mined the tension of curiosity and rebellion that make such things as eating bugs magical. Staged at various venues throughout North Brooklyn, the fest featured over a dozen insectivores on hand to discuss and serve up edible bugs in a dizzying variety of preparations.
The event got off to an historic start, with longtime entomophagist (and AMNH entomologist) Louis Sorkin offering an overview of Bug Eating in the city. Suffice to say, nothing is ever truly New in New York City: It turns out the hoi-polloi have been scarfing down mealworms, crickets, and tarantulas in this town for a good 40 years.
Later speakers built on Sorkin’s opening by touching on topics from bug husbandry (Ryan Goldin) and kid-friendly cricket cuisine (Robyn Shapiro) to overcoming entomophobia (Minu Kim). We were introduced to small but dedicated community of enotomophagic entrepreneurs and cultural iconoclasts.
Of course, the lure of all this data transmission was the intentional consumption of Bugs. Chef Yoon, whose day job with Dinner Echo entails crafting personal menus for the bourgeoisie, tended to push his edible offerings towards the haute, and if Friday’s Cricket Meal Lasagna with mealworm Cheesepuffs and Cricket Adobo-garnished salad represented a soft-opening, Saturday’s 12-course tasting menu represented a Michelin Star-worthy turn.
SCORPION SUSHI, AND OTHER DELIGHTS
The gastronomical Startship Troopers assembled at the Brooklyn Kitchen, an elegant post-industrial, sub-elevated BQE space on Williamsburg’s Northern fringe. Wine, beer, and other courage enhancements were flowing as the curious crowd awaited a self-selected fate with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. After all, the menu promised such delights as a Japanese Hornet & Lobster Medallion, Scorpion Sushi, and Locust Arugula Salad. Yum!
A tray of Junebug Fritters started us off. My temporary-companion, and I quickly discovered that peer-pressure is the best sauce. The fritter was a mouthful of exoskeletal crunch, heightened by some ponzu–and, to be honest, not a lot of flavor. In fact, other than a unique pheromonic tang from the Gusano worm garnishing a morsel of sea bass, and a unique musky pungence imparted by the silkworm pupae mixed with beef short-ribs, most of the insects on the menu were downright bland. Fried scorpions, roasted wasps, and black ants were offered up more for shock-politics and crunch than for any specific sapidity.
That said, Chef Yoon, aided here by the garrulous Chef David George Gordon (AKA “The Bug Chef”) did a remarkable job, creating little sculptural bites that lingered indelibly, if not on the palate, then in the eye. Let the music do the talking:
So, the question begged, of course, is: did I eat it?
Friends, I did. In fact, I tried everything! Again, peer pressure was part of it. But so was an innate curiosity. Was it too much? Hardly. It was exciting, not especially flavorful but certainly memorable. And if it wasn’t Momofuku Pork-bun level delicious yet, we’d be wise to remember it took many thousands of years of pig-eating to hit upon that magical combination of fatty belly meat, sweet hoisin, pickled cucumber, and clean steamed bun that collectively create perfection. We are at the dawn, yet.