On the week of Valentine’s Day this year, Montana State University Bozeman hosted the 31st Bug Buffet. I will admit to being repelled by the whole idea of insects initially. When Chef Marcy Gaston, Assistant Teaching Professor in the Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts program, invited me to judge the 2nd Annual Bug Cook Off Competition, I was uncertain as to whether I wanted to sample the culinary creations made by mostly novice cooks, and then sample food that intentionally included creepy crawly insects.
I have eaten bugs before. A friend gave me a package of barbecue crickets as a joke. I liked the crunchy smoky flavored treat reminding me of biting into the crispy fried bones of a flounder or rock fish that I savored as a child. Then in Thailand, many years ago, I remember eating a heavily salted cricket, but I never purposely sought out insects to eat after that. Though I am sure I ingested many without my knowledge.
A dozen years ago, my friend Marilyn Bland gave me a metal box with a sculpted cricket designed as the handle for the lid. Inside a recipe for cricket tacos provided instructions to roast crickets tossed with minced garlic, lemon juice and salt in a 350 degrees F. oven for 10 minutes. I never made the effort to secure the insects to fulfil this recipe. Perhaps, I will now.
At around 10:30 on this Saturday morning, I entered through the back of Hannon Hall into the teaching kitchen, to be greeted by Chef Gaston. Already there were several students in this industrial sized kitchen. Some were looking at seasonings and spices set out on a side table while others were setting up cutting boards and gathering equipment. One person stood by the stove making an omelet while a group of three people huddled over a recipe. Sunlight beamed into the space from high side windows.
From now to 1 o’clock, the kitchen was open to competitors to set up and secure what they needed for cooking their recipes. They were welcomed to settle in and get their bearings. Basic pantry items were supplied with special requests taken and fulfilled earlier in the morning for needed ingredients.
Dr. Florence Dunkel, Associate Professor in the Department of Entomology at MSU Bozeman started the Bug Buffet 31 years ago. The first dishes included common grasshoppers sautéed in butter. Then as time went on, offerings such as brownies, southern fritters, tacos and quesadillas whet the appetites of those wanting to taste food made with insects. She encouraged her teaching assistants to highlight the specialties they were familiar with. Then in 2012, after receiving recognition for teaching excellence, she took the award money to pay the MSU culinary services to prepare the meal. Dunkel was thrilled to show up for the event with food already prepared and beautifully presented. However, she fondly remembered the days she and her teaching assistants spent hours preparing for the feast.
Four years ago, Dunkel expanded the Bug Buffet to include insect experts from around the United States and Canada. Patrick Crowley, founder of Chapul, the first company in the United States to launch an insect product and developed the first cricket flour on the market, was invited by the College of Business as the entrepreneur resident for the week. Dunkel recruited him as the first speaker.
This year, the bug filled week launched with the Bug Cook Off Competition included workshops by Chef Joseph Yoon, the Brooklyn Bugs Chef, and Julie J. Lesnik, PhD, author of Edible Insects and Human Evolution with off campus tours at Cowboy Cricket Farms in Belgrade. For the buffet, attendance reached close to 1000 last year and now takes place in the ballroom of the Student Union Building.
When bringing up the subject of insects and food, Dunkel believed that it is mostly Euro-Americans who do not normally eat insects. She said, “There’s at least 60 species of insects that have been used historically and are used now by Native Americans and Hispanic people in the United States, and mainly in the great basin which is just a little bit to the west of us here in Bozeman.”
She shared of her favorite story of the Ute Native Americans who lived around the great Salt Lake. When the pioneers arrived and lost their first crop to drought. The Native people gifted prairie cakes made of service berries, game and the Mormon Cricket or shield-backed katydid, the very insect that destroyed the harvest.
Dunkel’s journey into eating insects began when she, as a post doc in Minnesota, taught a pond study class where she said she ate everything that grew around the pond. Then in Rwanda, after buying bag of locusts from a boy and then taking them back to her hotel to have the chef prepare them, her fondness for eating insects continued. The preparation of the locusts by the chef reminded her of eating soft shell crabs.
Not only does Dunkel believe bugs to be delicious, but she added, “The other thing to remember is that it is not just about good nutrition, its about environmental sustainability. This is a huge age issue and not only are insects delicious but if we don’t begin to include them in our diet or bring them back into our diet because they are a paleo food, then we won’t be able to survive very well. We have to reduce our carbon footprint, but we have to reduce the footprint of our agriculture right now, and we can do that by beginning to include insects in our diet and in the feed for our domestic animals too. To give you some examples with some numbers, if we raise a pound of beef, edible beef, we would be using 2600 gallons of water, and this includes the water used to grow the food. If we are raising a pound of edible insects, we would require one gallon. That’s a difference of 2600 times.”
Chef Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs, invited to participate in this year’s event, shared Dunkel’s beliefs. He talked of the issue of food scarcity and sustainability as “the great part of the motivation behind my work, addressing these issues.”
Yoon left the music industry eight years ago to pursue his passion for cooking. “I started feeling a little of the burnout, and so I started looking into things that I could just spark a little personal interest and passion, which is cooking.”
In participating with a friend on an art project, his want of incorporating insects into his cooking began. Yoon started hosting popup dinners and now is a bug ambassador striving to introduce edible insects as a sustainable source of protein that can be found in the pantry, eaten as a snack and beautifully plated by chefs.
For Yoon, his strategy is to court diners with a variety of dishes showcasing and incorporating insects into many different dishes. His multicourse menus intend to optimize a diner’s introductory experience. He shared, “Well a big part of what I am trying to do is really demonstrate the versatility of insects and show how there are so many different ways you utilize it so I might start with like cricket gougeres.” These French cheese puffs make insect eating easy and inviting. The diner’s reaction, he shared their response, “It’s delicious. I didn’t even know there was a bug if you didn’t tell me.” Chef Yoon then might progress to a meal worm fritter and perhaps might add lobster to the fritter. His goal, “It’s really like having the idea of offering a cohesive menu, and a lot times the insects can increase in their challenge level and its really just trying to find a great story so there might be a scorpion that I might put on top of like a wonton crisp or something, and it’s like a really fun interactive engaging visceral dinner and I just want to appeal to their senses and excite them to try an whole assortment of edible insects.”
On this day, Yoon played cheerleader and consultant for the cook off competitors in the kitchen. He and Gaston kicked off the cooking at 1 o’clock, allowing the students an hour and a half of cooking time. His advice to the competitors was, “Make the dish that you can make the best and then think about how we can incorporate a bug into it, and then add a little twist. Don’t try to come up with some new complicated new dish that you are going to do for the first time ever at a contest, so do something really comfortable within your wheelhouse, but then add a twist and make it awesome. I just want to make them feel good and confident and to be able to execute well.”
With nine teams composed of an average of two people, calm mostly prevailed in the kitchen. I had expected more anxiety, preconceived from watching too many reality cooking shows. But there was no drama but a light-heartedness and confidence to this day’s participants.
The competition took off with cheers and hoots of enthusiasm as cooks attempted to incorporate ants, crickets or grasshoppers into their dishes. “Black ants have a citrusy flavor. Crickets are a little more nutty. Grasshoppers, the only way we could describe grasshoppers was they taste like grasshoppers,” Chef Gaston described the insects.
For Maria Abbot, a Liberal Studies major with a minor in Museum in Native American Studies, this was her second year competing. With a menu of sushi finished with a ginger cupcake, her strategy was time management. She said her goal was, “trying to keep everything going along, and getting everything nice and pretty.”
Ben Hale brought a touch of humor in the dessert he was preparing. He shared, “It’s called a picnic salad because it has fruit and stuff in it, and then we figured you can’t have a picnic without ants so we’re adding these black ants to it.”
“I am making a black ant and mushroom risotto so I’m vey excited about this. It is out of my comfort zone, but I am excited to find out how it goes, hopefully good,” Lauren Seuell said.
As the students were putting the finishing touches on their dishes, the fire alarm went off. At first, everyone ignored the warning, but soon we found ourselves standing outside in the cold. When all returned to the kitchen, competitors were given another half hour.
Chef Joseph Yoon, Lynn Donaldson and I were given seats around a table in the front of Hannon Hall’s dining room to judge. The teams after drawing numbers presented their dishes to us one at a time. Our judging criteria consisted of “Creative use of the insects, Presentation, Overall flavor of the dishes and Execution of the meal” totaling 30 points.
From tasting street tacos with ants to omelets with green peppers, ham and crickets to cricket dumplings to minty chocolate whoppie pies with black ant and mint to tuna ant salad sandwiches, we decided on a winner. Laurel Aytes with her teammates Rochelle Maderal and Kael Van Buskirk took first place with their entrée of Cricket Potato Latkes with Applesauce and Turmeric Aioli and dessert of Key Lime Meringue Pie with Blackberry Ant Reduction. The recipes from Lauren’s mother showed artistically on the plate and showcased good cooking even though Lauren admitted to never having made the dessert before.
This experience of judging the 2nd Annual Bug Cook Off infected my want to incorporate insects into my cooking. I was impressed with the calm and confidence the students showed in their cooking and frankly, the food was bugalicous. I was glad that Chef Marcy Gaston and Lynn Donaldson bugged me to participate. As Dr. Florence Dunkel would say, “Bug Appétit” and indeed, my savor for bugs has become “Bon Appétit”.