July 9, 2010
Let’s be clear here. I hate bugs. I loathe bugs.
I was surprised by feeling excited at the prospect of chowing down on some creepy crawlies, but the occasion still called for a stiff drink. I sat down at the bar at Oyamel, one of Jose Andres’ hip D.C. restaurants, and promptly ordered a gin and tonic.
With a feeling of mild trepidation, I ordered some Tacos de Chapulines. Grasshopper tacos.
I sat back and awaited my fate.
At 3 Quarks Daily, Quinn O’Neill lauds the power of entomophagy (eating insects) in reducing human consumption of animal products—a practice that many, including O’Neill, see as a drain on our environment and our health. Quinn calls Western aversion to eating insects as “irrational.” Eating insects, entomophagists argue, is a much more sustainable source of nutrition. High in protein, low in fat, what more could you want?
But, of course eating insects is nothing new for humankind. Insects figure into the traditional cuisine of many cultures. The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern eats them, and apparently, so does Salma Hayek. Chapulines are an ingredient in many Oaxacan dishes, and baskets of the crunchy creatures are sold in Oaxacan markets for use in tacos, tlayudas or to be eaten alone as a salted snack.
When my steaming tacos arrived, I thought there had been a mistake. The grasshoppers looked like a mound of finely shredded pork piled atop of a liberal dollop of guacamole. Perplexed, I asked the bartender, “You chop them up?”
He looked at me like I was demented.
“They’re farm-raised,” was his response.
“Yeah, but you chop them up, right?” I persisted.
“No, they’re whole.”
I picked up a single piece from my taco and held it up, examining it carefully.
“They’re baby grasshoppers!” I exclaimed triumphantly.
At this point the bartender decided to leave the crazy intern to his arthropods.
I dutifully tried a bite. Then another. These were tasty. Crispy, spicy, a hint of citrus—it was better than some of the other tacos I had tried. Though the legs do tend to get stuck in your teeth. I downed the entire taco and almost ordered another one, until the look of horror on my companion’s face gave me pause.
However, I didn’t feel I had completed my assignment yet. Amanda had asked me to find out what grasshoppers tasted like, and the ones in the taco had been spiced and sautéed in shallots, tequila and all manner of other delicious things. I needed the real deal. I needed to try these farm-raised little critters in the raw. I asked the bartender if he could provide such a thing. He seemed skeptical, but said he would try.
I waited and waited, and finally, with a furtive glance in either direction, the bartender surreptitiously placed a little bowl in front me and turned away without a word.
I scooped out a cluster of raw grasshoppers and stuck them in my mouth. They were chewy, without the crunch I expected from insects—apparently that came from being sautéed until crispy. They tasted rather sour and grassy (you are what you eat, I guess?), but not bad, reminiscent of a mild citrus fruit. What I had mistaken for a squeeze of lemon on my taco earlier had, in fact, been the natural flavor of the grasshopper.
Throughout the evening I had tried to make my dinner companion taste some of the little creatures. He gave in just before the end of the meal, having had enough of my cajoling. He delicately placed a grasshopper on his tongue, swallowed and washed it down with a deluge of ice water (though perhaps Sauvignon Blanc would have been a natural pairing).
“That was gross,” he declared.
I guess grasshoppers aren’t for everyone.
Guest writer Brandon Springer is spending the summer at Smithsonian Magazine through an American Society of Magazine Editors internship.
June 30, 2010
It sounds a bit counterintuitive to eat as much of a species as possible, doesn’t it? But as I was reminded at the recent Sustainable Seafood program organized by the Smithsonian Resident Associates, sustainability is all about balance. And although many of our ocean’s tastiest species are being harvested to the brink of endangerment (or, in the case of bluefin tuna, imminent extinction), sometimes the scales tip in the opposite direction. Occasionally, the fish are the bad guys.
Enter the lionfish, stage left. This native of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans showed up in the Atlantic and Caribbean a decade or two ago, probably an escapee from a tropical aquarium. It’s a prickly character, not the type that usually inspires dinner invitations, but sustainability-sensitive chefs like Barton Seaver want to introduce lionfish to the American table.
“This is an invasive species with no natural predator, so let’s turn the most efficient predator of all on it—humans,” says Seaver. “I mean, if Red Lobster would have a lionfish festival, it would be approximately three months before the problem is gone.”
The problem, you see, is that lionfish don’t play well with others. They eat many of their marine neighbors, hog the food supply, and scare off snorkeling tourists with their venomous spines. It’s a particular problem in coral reef ecosystems, where the introduction of a single lionfish can kill off as much as 80 percent of small or juvenile native species within weeks. That’s bad news for biodiversity, but it’s also bad news for human seafood eaters.
As Anika Gupta explained in a Smithsonian article last year:
In the Western Atlantic, samples of lionfish stomach contents show that they consume more than 50 different species, including shrimp and juvenile grouper and parrotfish, species that humans also enjoy. A lionfish’s stomach can expand up to 30 times its normal size after a meal. Their appetite is what makes lionfish such frightening invaders… Lab studies have shown that many native fish would rather starve than attack a lionfish.
Since other methods of controlling or eradicating invasive lionfish populations have largely failed, scientists and U.S. fisheries experts are launching an “Eat Lionfish” campaign, and it’s begun to attract interest from chefs in cities like New York and Chicago.
At the recent Smithsonian event, Seaver served up a tasty lionfish ceviche accented with almonds and endive. He compared the fish’s flavor and firm texture to something “between snapper and grouper,” which happen to be two of the species threatened by lionfish invasions.
You probably won’t find lionfish at your local fish market, says Seaver, but keep asking for it to create a demand. (His supply was donated by the group Sea 2 Table.) And if you do come across a source, check out these recipes on Lionfish Hunter‘s site.
June 8, 2010
I’ve been getting weekly e-mails lately from someone named Danielle Nierenberg about a project called Nourishing the Planet. To be honest, I tend to ignore most of the newsletters and unsolicited press releases that find their way to my inbox, so I didn’t pay much attention at first. But now that I’ve finally read a few of Danielle’s missives, I’m hooked, and thought I should spread the word.
Nourishing the Planet is a project of the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research group that focuses on sustainability issues, particularly in relation to food and agriculture. Danielle, one of their researchers, is currently traveling around sub-Saharan Africa to find and blog about potential solutions to the challenge of feeding a growing population on an increasingly stressed planet. That’s what I find refreshing: She’s reporting from the field (literally) in layman’s terms, and highlighting signs of hope rather than just pointing out the problems.
In Zambia, she met a man whose creative peanut butter project simultaneously protects wildlife and helps farmers earn a living. In Madagascar, she encountered an Italian NGO that hopes to halt slash-and-burn agriculture by teaching farmers how to improve the soil and make a living from organic agriculture. In South Africa, she learned about an innovative group that uses theater to explain agricultural policy to rural women farmers.
Most recently, in Ghana, Danielle met with members of an interfaith initiative called ECASARD, which connects farmers with each other and regional resources. Through ECASARD, a group of women in one village started their own dairy cooperative to produce and sell pasteurized milk and yogurt. (They were having trouble getting access to credit when they worked with men, so “we started our own thing,” as one woman explains in this video.) The organization also helps farmers get into “alternative livelihood” projects that require less land and water than other crops—things like beekeeping, growing mushrooms, raising rabbits or even snails.
The blog also highlights a different innovation each week, including disposable and composting toilets to prevent water contamination in developing areas, fireless cookers that reduce the need for charcoal and lighten women’s workloads, indigenous livestock projects, school gardens and more.
And the blog is just the beginning; it’s all leading up to a comprehensive report to be published next year. I look forward to reading more.
May 13, 2010
As the fish vendor at the farmer’s market wrapped up my purchase last week, I started to ask: “So, are you worried…?” but didn’t even get a chance to add “…about the oil spill?” before she emphatically replied: “YES.”
Making a living from fishing is hard enough already, she explained grimly, so she can’t imagine how commercial fisherman and their families along the Gulf Coast will survive this blow to their main source of income. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps widening the area closed to fishing off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, now accounting for some 7 percent of all federal Gulf Coast waters. State waters in Mississippi and Alabama remain open so far, but Louisiana has closed many of its oyster beds and shrimping areas as a precaution.
Although some three-quarters of Louisiana’s fishing areas are still open, the spill is already affecting the state’s economy, adding to the woes inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Charter fisherman say business has slowed to a “trickle,” and the region’s largest fishery is reeling from a 50 percent decline in its catch. The state has lifted certain eligibility restrictions on food aid programs to make it easier for “recently unemployed fishermen” to qualify.
Despite all this, we’re seeing news reports with headlines like “Spill’s Effect Unlikely to Make Its Way to Grocery Aisles.” Well, that’s good news…right?
Not exactly, from my perspective. This illuminates some statistics I never really noticed before: about 83 percent of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported from overseas, much of it from China. Combined with the recent revelation that the FDA inspects only about 2 percent of seafood imports annually, I find that unsettling, especially since many Chinese seafood imports have been found to be contaminated or fraudulently labeled. (So many, in fact, that the FDA has issued an “import alert” on specific types of seafood from China.)
I don’t know what to do about all of this, other than to pay more attention to where my seafood is coming from, and to buy from reputable domestic sources whenever possible. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide is a helpful resource for tracking which species are being sustainably caught and managed—issues that will be discussed at the Smithsonian Associates’ upcoming Savoring Sustainable Seafood weekend here in D.C.
And I think I’ll go back to that fish vendor today.
April 20, 2010
I was startled and a little confused by this news, because sardines seem to be so trendy these days, showing up on menus at both fine and casual restaurants in cuisine that ranges from Italian to Vietnamese.
There’s even a group called the Sardinistas in California, who hope to overcome the little fishes’ rather stinky reputation by touting their tastiness, sustainability and health benefits. As Washington Post food writer Jane Black explains, the group’s basic message is: “These are not your grandfather’s sardines.”
Ah, yes, my grandparents’ sardines—I can picture those: Slick, gray-skinned, nearly-whole creatures plopped into pop-top tins, often carted back in suitcases from vacations in Norway. I don’t recall if I ever even tasted one; the smell alone made my squeamish. My family liked to tease me about this, saying there must not be any “real” Scandinavian blood in me if I wasn’t born loving sardines. (Then again, they allowed, I sure did love potatoes—so maybe I could pass the test after all.) And at a picnic with the other side of the family, I had a male cousin who decided he loved sardines after realizing that the sight of their soft spines made me run away squealing. My brother soon discovered this neat trick, too.
But I realize that I’m an adult now, and a silly little fish shouldn’t scare me. In fact, I’ve been trying to convince myself that I should like sardines. They’re considered a highly sustainable seafood choice because they’re low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly. Nutritionists like oily fish like sardines and herrings because they’re packed with omega-3 fatty acids which help your brain and heart, along with calcium and vitamins B-12 and D. They also tend to contain less mercury and other accumulated toxins than larger fish species like tuna.
So, on a friend’s recommendation, I ordered the salt-cured sardines at 2 Amys, my favorite pizza place in D.C. I was surprised to see what the waiter brought me: thin pink strips of flesh, almost like lox, laid out on a plate with a drizzle of olive oil. Not what I remembered from childhood! The smell, however, was still something of a challenge. At first I draped a sardine over a hunk of bread and lifted it toward my mouth, but put it back down when the olfactory signals to my brain screamed “cat food!” Using a fork worked better, since it minimized the under-nose time. The taste was very salty—in the way of good, strong olives—and the texture was tender. I didn’t hate it. (Faint praise, but hey, it’s progress.)
Now that I’ve gathered some courage, I’ll move onto tinned sardines, but I think I’ll still need to disguise them a bit. I like Alton Brown’s idea of smashing them on toast under a layer of avocado.