Grub of a Different Sort

By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The little girl in the green hat wouldn’t eat one. No way, she said. Her Mom thought about for a bit, but she chickened out at the last minute. 

Finally, Chrissy Teck, marketing manager at Fertile Underground Grocery, who had already eaten one earlier, popped another in her mouth with a smile. In one bite, the toasted cricket was gone. Down the hatch.

On a recent Tuesday evening, a small group was forming at the sample tables at Fertile Underground during the store’s “Alternative Protein Night.” Behind one table, fielding questions from curious shoppers, sat David Gracer, owner of Small Stock Foods and longtime proponent of entomophagy, or insect consumption.

The toasted crickets heaped in the plastic container in front of Gracer weren’t exactly going quickly. People seemed more interested in trying samples of the store-made vegan sausage at the next table.

“The concept of eating bugs freaks people out so much. They are incapable of challenging their assumptions,” Gracer said.

Through public engagements such as this one, Gracer hopes to change people’s misgivings about eating insects. An English teacher at Community College of Rhode Island, Gracer, who could be described as an extreme eater — he claimed to have eaten coyote a week ago — runs Small Stock in his spare time. In addition to giving talks and hosting insect tastings, he also fills roughly five sale orders a week, mostly of crickets.

Gracer’s main argument for consuming insects is environmental.

He is not the only one making this argument. A policy paper presented to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) several years ago focused attention on the cultivation of insects for food.

According to professor Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, “The world population will grow ... to 9 billion by 2050, and we know people are consuming more meat. Twenty years ago the average was 44 pounds [per person, per year]; it is now 110 pounds and will be 176 pounds in 20 years. If we continue like this we will need another Earth."

Insects, on the other hand, require little water and few resources to cultivate. According to van Huis, breeding commonly eaten insects such as locusts, crickets and mealworms, emits 10 times less methane than livestock. Insects also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide — also a warming gas — and much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming.

And, insects pack a protein punch. In their dried form, grasshoppers may contain up to 60 percent protein.

Gracer’s own fascination with entomophagy began in 1999, when he received some flavored mealworm snacks for his birthday. This piqued his curiosity, and his discoveries drove him to promote insects as a part of a healthy, sustainable diet. He has given radio interviews and even appeared on "The Colbert Report" in 2008. (For the record, Colbert declined to sample Gracer’s wares.)

At Fertile Underground, the pre-dinner crowd was filling the store, and the vegetarian ecoRI News reporter interviewing Gracer and cataloging customers’ reactions to his sample tray decided to try a cricket herself, out of a sense journalistic duty — and sheer curiosity.

The mouthfeel was shatteringly crunchy, like a potato chip, but a little splintery. The flavor was pleasantly salty and nutty. Gracer said he had seasoned the crickets with some celery salt. Not bad. Intriguing enough to merit trying another.

And while this ecoRI News reporter may be a convert, judging from the reactions of customers at Fertile Underground, most Americans have a lot of psychological hurdles to overcome before they accept insects as food.

At the cash register, the cashier asked a woman buying eggs if she had tried a bug. She replied with a gross-out face that she couldn’t do it.

“Well, enjoy your baby chicken embryos,” the cashier said with a smile.