Pardon me, but would you mind passing the cream cheese mealworm dip?

May 24, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- The hors d'ouevres had six legs. The chocolate cake was covered with candied crickets. And if diners found a fly in their soup, they didn't complain. It probably belonged there.

Such was the cuisine consumed Wednesday night by members of the New York Entomological Society, the organization of insect enthusiasts that came up with the novel idea of presenting a banquet of bugs to celebrate the society's 100th birthday.

They charged $65 a plate and were overbooked.

If eating insects seems daunting, it was even more of a challenge to the kitchen staff at New York Parties, the Greenwich Village caterer chosen to prepare the meal at the Explorer's Club.

Tony Mininno, the account executive who devised the insect menu, said the chefs had never knowingly cooked bugs before and knew nothing about their culinary properties. How are they cleaned? How are they prepared?

How do you keep them from squirming off the counter?

What the cooks learned is that bugs are high in protein, minerals and unsaturated fats and are frequently consumed by indigenous cultures.

Gene R. DeFoliart, a retired entomology professor at the University of Wisconsin who publishes the Food Insects Newsletter, said that his favorite bug is the greater wax worm, which was easily raised in the laboratory.

"We used to drop those in the deep fat fryer for about 40 seconds, take them out and dip them into salt," he said. "They taste like bacon."

Mr. DeFoliart, who was the keynote speaker Wednesday night, said that although European and American cultures frown on eating bugs, the consumption of insects is unavoidable. Almost all fruit and grain products, including the breakfast cereals, contain a measurable amount of bug matter.

But that knowledge did not help Mr. Mininno or his colleagues, who found few cookbooks that addressed insects, except for the seminal works by California bug enthusiast Ronald L. Taylor, who wrote "Entertaining With Insects" and "Butterflies in My Stomach."

So Mr. Mininno and the head chef, Sharon Elliot, marched off into uncharted territory.

"What I did was go through our own repertoire of hors d'ouevres and dishes and I made adjustments to the recipes to make the appropriate insects work," Mr. Mininno said.

Much of the fare was based on relatively common species, the sort of meat and potatoes of the insect world: mealworms (beetle larvae), wax worms (moth larvae) and crickets.

But the menu also included such exotic fare as sauteed Thai water bugs (a rather large creature that eats small fish) and roasted Australian kurrajong grubs.

The chefs also threw in a few orders of roast beef and chicken Normandy for those entomologists who would rather not eat fritters encrusted with worms.

Each table was adorned with a floral centerpiece that included a small fishbowl containing a live tarantula, scorpion or goliath beetle, which the members provided from their collections.

Most of the livestock that went into the meals came from breeders that supply bait shops and pet stores. Mr. Mininno said that when the 10,000 worms and 10,000 crickets arrived in cardboard boxes, the kitchen staff erupted.

"I wish I had a video," said Mr. Mininno. "There were people shuddering in horror, screaming and closing their eyes, walking out of the room."

The crickets came packed in a box. "They sat here on my desk for half a day and they were serenading me as I was conducting my work," said Mr. Mininno. One evening, hundreds of the crickets escaped from the box, creating a panic and two hours of work to collect them.

But the chefs overcame their initial revulsion and began to regard the bugs like any other ingredient -- one that had an appetite of its own. They fed the bugs diced apples and potatoes to purge the insects of any paper wrapping they ate in transit.

Mr. Mininno described the critters.

"The wax worm, well, it looks like a big maggot," said Mr. Mininno. "It's a beige color and it doesn't have any legs. And we had the super mealworms, which are about 3 inches long, and those have kind of a hard skin and they do have little legs on the bottom, and they're very active, they really crawl around. And they bite -- nothing terribly painful, but they do nip. The regular-size mealworms are very calm and not very active. The crickets are jumpy, and we have to be sure to keep them contained."

The first task was to clean the insects, which must be kept alive until they are ready to prepare.

The crickets were dunked in ice water to lose some spring in their step, then flash-frozen in plastic bags. Afterward, their heads, entrails and legs were removed in the same fashion as one would clean a shrimp.

"It's very tedious, actually," said Mr. Mininno. "There's a lot of labor that goes into the preparation."

The worms require less work.

"There's nothing you have to do to them except purge them and wash them," he said. "After they're dry, you can either roast them or you can boil them. Once they're in that state, you can freeze them and then use them later on.

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