Buzzing: At the Bug Buffet
Hello friends, how are you all? This is a very special edition of Buzzing because it comes straight from the Bug Buffet at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.
It is the 34th edition of the event and I have been wanting to attend ever since I heard about it in 2019. Visa requirements and Covid meant I had to wait until now, but boy was it worth it. So let’s crack on:
What’s the best gateway bug?
In Other News: Sovereign foods & other news
Test Corner: Highlights from the Buffet
I believe that insect protein is part of the answer to more sustainable food systems; this is why this newsletter is free to read. It is not free to produce however so if you’ve enjoyed reading it, you can support me on ko-fi.
The first time I read about the Bug Buffet, I was gobsmacked: I couldn’t believe that an event on edible insects could attract 1,000 people, in Montana out of all places (this is prime beef territory – there is three times more cattle than people).
The first Bug Buffet was organised in 1988 by Dr Florence Dunkel, an entomologist at Montana State University, the grandmother of the edible insect movement. She has been the driving force behind it but I don’t think it would have carried on had it not been adopted by the university and the town at large.
The Bug Buffet is featured every year in local news and many of the people I spoke to at the Buffet on Monday – students, faculty and ordinary residents – said they came every year. And why not? Here is some free, delicious food cooked by a team of chefs, that just happens to have insects in it. Most people just said it was fun.
There is obviously a bias amongst the people who attend: if they’ve made the effort to come, they must at least be open to the idea of eating insects. Plenty of the people I’ve met since arriving – taxi driver, guides, hotel and restaurant staff – who invariably ask what a foreigner is doing in town (there haven’t been many since Covid), didn’t know about the event and were less than enthused by the idea of eating insects.
Changing perceptions is hard: I know because I had to go through that process myself. How best to do it is the billion-dollar question but the best place to start is, well, the start: what would be the best “gateway” insect or insect-product for an insect novice to try?
Interestingly, everyone seems to have a different opinion: I would argue that an insect powder in something delicious like a cake or a biscuit is the way to go; because I am such a squeamish eater, I feel that taking the visual element out of the equation would make it easier for a lot of people.
But two of the speakers at the event had a different tac: they argued for their favourite insects, the ones that had given them such gourmet experiences that their mouths were watering just at the thought of it: for Florence Dunkel, that’s locusts or grasshoppers (preferably fried in butter), which she likens to soft shell crab; for Cheryl Preyer, liaison coordinator at the NSF Center for Sustainable Agriculture through Insect Farming, that’s escamoles (ant eggs), a typical Mexican delicacy that has been likened to insect caviar.
What do you think? What would be your gateway insect? And if you’ve never eaten an insect before, what insect or product would tempt you? I’d love to know. Leave a comment (big green button below) or reply to this newsletter to let me know.
In Other News
The keynote speaker at the event was Chef Sean Sherman, also known as the Sioux Chef. Not only is he an amazing chef (he’s won a lot of awards and his restaurant Owamni is booked out every night), he is also a passionate sovereign foods activist. Food was weaponised against Native Americans during the 19th and early 20th century: the US government intentionally killed bisons to deprive Native Americans of this prized food, tribes were dispossessed and displaced and children taken to boarding school where they couldn’t learn from their elders. The revival of sovereign foods is therefore as much about cultural reappropriation as it is about social justice.
🦗 Yours truly wrote a piece for The Guardian about the potential for insect farming in Africa.
📽 The New York Times did a great video about edible insects as part of their series “The Joy of Cooking” featuring many of the big names in the industry in North America.
📊 Huhu Grubs have long been prized as traditional foods by Maori in New Zealand and their nutritional value has just been analysed for the first time. (Nexus Newsfeed)
Test corner: Highlights from the buffet, Part 1
This is a round-up of the dishes that were served at the buffet on Monday, when university chefs cook insect dishes for the public; the other big buffet event will be the student cook-off tomorrow, which I’ll cover in the next edition.
If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that my favourite dish at the buffet was an unlikely one: scorpion chilli. After my previous scorpion experience, I was not in the most positive mindset about it but I did try it, and what a surprise. It was one of the best chillis I’ve had: incredibly flavoursome and with just the right amount of spice. The main insect ingredient was in fact scorpion powder, with the whole scorpions used as garnish.
Also high on my list was the black bean and black ant tamale: the ants tasted surprisingly smoky, which reminded me of paprika, with just a hint of sourness at the end. The sumac, courgette/zucchini and cricket dish was delicious, as was the wild rice with mealworms, the mealworms blending very effectively with the darker grains.
On the dessert buffet, the pemmican – a Native American trail mix of berries, seeds and cricket, which in this case were bound with marshmallow – was an absolute hit, as was the pumpkin bread with cricket powder.
The student cook-off takes place tomorrow, when students are coached by the university’s catering team and then take part in a cooking competition for best insect dish. I can’t wait!