NEW ORLEANS Earlier this week, I met with Zack Lemann at the Insectarium, a roughly 18-month-old Audubon museum. He gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of its dozens of living exhibits hosting insects and more -- including tarantulas and, arriving that day for their Tuesday debut, white (non-albino) alligators. But the purpose of my noon-hour visit was to sample the local cuisine and learn details of preparations for a holiday menu that would be offered through tomorrow at the facility’s experiential cafe: Bug Appetit. There’s Thanksgiving turkey with a cornbread and waxworm stuffing, cranberry sauce with mealworms, and Cricket Pumpkin Pie.
It’s cuisine most Americans would never pay for. But at the Insectarium, they don’t have to. It’s offered free as part of an educational adventure.
The food is actually quite tasty (yes, I tried cricket-laced Chocolate Chirp Cookies, Crispy Cajun Crickets, Cinnamon Bug Crunch, an Apple-Mango Chutney with waxworms, and crackers topped with a particularly yummy Hoppin’ Herb Dip made from cream cheese, sour cream, peppers, onions, seasonings and house crickets).
So what’s educational? The unusual menu offerings provide visitors a chance to experience entomophagy -- eating bugs. Dining on such “mini-livestock” is a cultural practice observed throughout much of the world. Indeed, Zack encountered a veterinarian at the Audubon zoo, a few years back, when he was doing a bug-cooking demonstration. “She practically tackled me in the hall,” he says, when she realized he had roasted leaf-cutter ant queens. They’d been a childhood treat of hers, in Colombia, and she was anxious to sample them again.
Bugs are also nutritious, as I pointed out in a feature story last year. And Bug Appetit offers a safe, nurturing environment in which squeemish North Americans can get their first taste of beetle larvae, crickets, dragonflies and more. Any day but Monday (when the museum’s closed).
Up to 10,000 people a week stop by the Insectarium (423 Canal St., in the refurbished U.S. Custom House on the edge of the French Quarter). At least 25 percent of visitors stop by Bug Appetit to learn about entomophagy. All get the chance to sample several items. The easiest sell, not surprisingly, are the cookies. Offer people enough chocolate and they’ll overlook a crispy cricket on top. (Hint for the timid: Close your eyes when taking that first bite. If you can’t see the caterpillars or winged bugs in your food, chances are you won’t taste them either.)
I was game for all Zack had to offer -- until confronted with his Six-Legged Salsa seeded with ginormous mealworms. I was afraid that even with my eyes closed I’d actually discern the texture of the worm (and for me, texture can play a big role in how appetizing a food is).
Kids, overall, tend to be bigger sports when it comes to tasting bugged food, Zack says. But nearly everybody who does sample his spiced and highly flavored fare comes away acknowledging it is tasty. And his test kitchen hands out a lot of food, necessitating purchases of about 5,000 crickets, 5,000 waxworms and 500 mealworms a week.
What makes Bug Appetit work is the enthusiasm with which Zack and his colleagues present information about the value of insects in human nutrition. These bug boosters are charismatic. Which is essential to selling the idea of swallowing bugs to U.S. school children or neat-freak adults. The Insectarium staff doesn’t push bugs for their gross-out value (although kids might warm to that). No, they instead extoll the benefits of insects and other multi-legged animals to Earth’s ecosystems. These critters help support the soil that serves as the basis of human agriculture, they break down wastes so that we don’t live in ever-accumulating piles of excrement and animal corpses, and they feed each other -- and us. Throughout, Zack’s banter is winning and infectious. (How could you not love bugs after spending time with him and this living museum?)
Still not game enough to eat a bug? Even after being told they tend to taste nutty? Perhaps you’d consider eating atop mini-livestock at the museum’s Tiny Termite Cafe. There, visitors can buy conventional American meals. But four of the restaurant's tables have what appears to be a thick lucite top above a shadow box decorated around various arthropod themes: cricket-keeping in China and Japan, growing silkworms for the production of fabric, the Southeast Asian practice of betting on male-beetle fights, and spiders in fact and fiction. Among treasures under the clear table top are live critters (with a tarantula, naturally, in the spider table).