By Yepoka Yeebo and Mustafa Mehdi Vural
Marc Dennis was the kid at the high school party who after a few beers would be dared to eat insects or moths or spiders for a couple of bucks. He always accepted.
“I grew up in a family of five boys, and I know that my mother didn’t want to know half the stuff we were eating,” said Dennis, a 46-year-old professor of painting, drawing and computer imagining at Elmira College in New York. It was a sunny April morning at a local café on Front Street in Brooklyn. He was drinking coffee and eating a blueberry muffin; far less exotic than the cockroaches, flies, wasps, grasshoppers, worms and scorpions he has eaten over the years.
Dennis considers himself a “bug chef.” He founded the organization “Insects are Food,” in 2009 and he is one of the leading proponents of eating insects.
“My main objective is to turn people onto the benefits of entomophagy — the practice of bug eating. To turn them on to the high protein, low fat, some of the vitamins, like Niacin,” he said. “There are probably 1,462 species discovered and categorized as edible, I believe there are more.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed this figure. There are at least 527 different insects that are eaten across 36 countries in Africa along with 29 countries in Asia and 23 in the Americas. In Thailand, almost 200 different insect species are eaten, and vendors selling insects are a common sight.
“Insects can feed the world; cows and pigs are the SUV’s, bugs are the bicycles,” wrote Dave Gracer on InsectsAreFood.com. Gracer, one of the advisors of Dennis’ organization, teaches composition, literature, and public speaking at Community College of Rhode Island and finds wax worms, ants, stinkbugs, and numerous others to be quite tasty.
The public debut of Dennis’ insect cuisine came in 2005 at Bubby’s, a local restaurant in his neighborhood, Dumbo. There was a pie social to benefit for local school. And he served his first caramel cricket northern pecan pie, “bastardized,” he said, from a southern pecan recipe. It was, he added, “the second pie at the social to sell out.”
But it is not always easy to overcome what he calls a “yuck” factor – the rejection of entomophagy with disgust by the insectophobic.
He told how on a visit to Rome, a cockroach wound up on his plate. “The waitress saw it, freaked out and begged me not to get angry,” he said. “I said ‘It’s okay,’ and I picked it up and ate it, and she freaked out even more.” They gave him the meal for free.
“I believe that the best way is to alert people that there are not only tastes, but they can be surprising.”
The people he has surprised are gradually increasing. At his last “bug dinner” in August of last year, Dennis served 22 invited guests bamboo worms with wasabi paste and bamboo worms with Thai peanut sauce as appetizer. The main course was “Jing Leed cricket stir fry” — fried rice and chile pepper glazed onions stirred with imported Thai crickets that sat in Lapsang Souchong tea for an hour.
The number of people who have signed up for the next “bug bite,” has already grown to 53 according to Dennis’ meetup group online.
Back at his stainless steel open kitchen, Dennis put thinly sliced cucumber topped with ginger and a bit of mango chutney into white plate. Then came the dark glossy brown crickets, which he blanched in Lapsang Souchong tea for an hour, to the finishing touch for his “cricket cucumber pokies.”
“No one,” he said, “has ever thrown up at my dinners.”