Robert Nathan Allen Wants You to Eat Some Bugs
I keep wanting him to be some odd-looking geek who's totally into the idea of insects just for themselves, some eccentric yet lovable bug aficionado like those FBI entomologists at Quantico in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs, and so that's the reason he's co-presenting the sixth annual Bug Festival in Zilker Park this weekend, that's why he's all about promoting insects as food.
But that's not why Allen – an affable, thoughtful, almost disappointingly normal-looking guy, after all – is promoting insects as food.
He's doing it only because it makes perfect sense.
"I absolutely stumbled into it," he tells me over java at the Thunderbird Coffee on Manor. "About a year and a half ago, my mom sent me an article about eating insects. She sent it as a joke, like 'You and Dad can eat bugs!' But I thought it was really interesting, and I started reading about the health benefits and the environmental benefits of entomophagy. And, at the time, I was the bar manager at a hotel here in town, so I thought, 'Hey, I can be the first person to put them on the menu,' and since then it's evolved into a much larger idea."
A much larger idea. Specifically: To accommodate the suggestions of the recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report entitled "Edible Insects," which champions entomophagy as a way of combating hunger (without further devastating the global environment) as the world's population continues to increase.
"So I reached out to people across the country who were writing about entomophagy, who were doing books about it," says Allen. "And I got in touch with Harmon Johar of World Entomophagy – he was finishing school at the University of Georgia at the time – and his goal was to be the first large-scale producer of food-grade insects. Not the mealworms and crickets that you can buy in bulk from growers who provide to pet stores or for chicken feed, but a standard, hygienic, organic, human-consumption-grade insect. But it's still a scary topic to broach for a lot of people. Even with the UN coming out and talking about how great and necessary it is, there are still a lot of people who are real squeamish about it."
Which is one reason Allen thinks Austin is a good place in which to establish his Little Herds project.
"In Austin," he says, "so many people are interested in natural, healthy food – in locally raised, locally sourced, environmentally conscious food. So insects are a perfect fit for this city. It's also still really weird to eat insects – which fits right into our book. But nobody was doing anything here. So I looked at California and saw that there were a few restaurants and food trailers out there, and I ended up meeting a couple of folks who were working on the engineering aspects of it: How do we create this new sort of farming system – some sort of modular, automated system – to get the biggest return? And I started talking to people in Europe who were working on how to get it in front of the public, to overcome the taboos. And that's what I want to do, starting in Austin: To educate the adults in town by presenting it to them in a palatable environment. Because if you go to your favorite restaurant with your favorite chef who always does right by you, always makes things delicious, if he or she says 'Alright, I'm gonna cook some bugs, would you be willing to try 'em?' Most people under those conditions, especially when they're in a place where they can get a drink beforehand – get some liquid courage, if they need it – will try something new and different."
Let's pause here and mention again the Bug Festival in Zilker Park this weekend. It's a one-day event each year, founded and still co-produced by a woman named Marjory Wildcraft, and it's a periodic novelty (as opposed to the ongoing culture that Allen's working to establish); but it's also a fine opportunity to meet (and eat) a variety of insects and arachnids. [To meet and consciously eat them, we mean: USDA standards, of course, suggest that you're devouring x number of bugs in every jar of peanut butter or bag of corn chips or whatever.] It's a sort of buggy celebration and buffet, right there in the middle of the park, and we'll bet that any kids you know will thank you for taking them along.
"We definitely need to be educating people at a young age," says Allen. "Kids should know about this alternative protein – why it's healthy and not that gross or icky."
Austin Chronicle: So it's not that gross or icky, really?
Robert Nathan Allen: The first time I put mealworms in a baking pan to dry them up – because we were experimenting with powdering them and using 'em as a flour – and you open the oven and it smells like a mix of peanuts roasting and french fries: It smells so good! And I've also been using crickets that Harmon's been growing with World Ento, so those are the two main insects that Little Herds has been experimenting with. And we're hoping, once we've learned the best methods for growing and harvesting those two, that we can expand to other species. Waxmoth larva, silkworm larva, maybe even going crazy and getting in some scorpions down the line.
AC: Whenever I read about entomophagy, I see giant water bugs on the menu … ?
RNA: Yeah, they're supposed to be really high in protein and iron.
AC: But what about the, uh, taste of them?
RNA: I've heard they're really good. And because there are so many different species of insects, and so few chefs to play around with them and tell people about their experiments, we don't really know the flavor profile for a lot of the insects that we know are edible. We haven't even studied most of the insects to see if they're edible. I mean, think about the different ways you can cook a chicken, and multiply that by 1500. Last year at the Bug Festival, which was the fifth annual – although it was the first time I'd heard of it – I went and I got to try leaf-cutter ants, wasps, wasp and bee larva, crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, walking sticks, and scorpions.
AC: Ah, man, walking sticks are so sweet, though! In disposition, I mean – it'd be like eating somebody's dog. But – did all those bugs have distinctly different flavors after cooking?
RNA: Well, basically, they were tossed into a boiling pot to get rid of any pathogens or fungus, and then thrown into a cast-iron skillet with a little bit of butter or soy sauce. And the larva had a distinctly buttery, sweet-honey-but-still-savory flavor to them. And the scorpion had a distinctly salty-savory, meaty flavor to it – which was really interesting.
AC: Like seafood at all? Like crustaceans?
RNA: No, not fishy at all. Ah, crickets smell like shrimp before they're cooked. But then, depending on how you cook them … if you sauté them, it keeps a little bit of that. But if you roast them, it becomes a kind of oaty, nutty flavor and aroma. That's why you'll see them in chocolate-chip cookies a lot of times: They're a great substitute for nuts.
AC: [makes note]