Grasshopper tacos with Fried Tarantula on the side

Bug Eatin, courtesy of PBS

I’ll start with the unfortunate news, and as a waiver, I have never tried a prepared insect meal or item. Sure, I’ve eaten the occasional bug that flies into my mouth or a worm from back in the day, but I have yet to seize the opportunity to eat a real bug. Recently, I’ve come across some links involving appetizing meals that include insects. Some have been stumbled upon and others sent to me. Eating an insect is still a lot more popular outside of the United States than in them. Places like Cambodia and Thailand specialize in fried bugs, Central Africa is known for snacking on ants, while Mexico is also known for inserting them in various meals. In fact, 4 out of 5 people worldwide eat insects regularly.

For those adventurous enough to seek insects to eat, do not fear. There are some brave chefs in America that do incorporate what is known as entomophagy, the eating of insects. In fact, less than a month ago the New York Times had a set of articles dedicated to the habit. First, they described an $85 dollar dinner event at the Brooklyn Kitchen highlighting the flavors and uniqueness that these insects offer.

Scorpion Soup

They also discuss some history of insects in food and talk with famous eaters like Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods. To go along with the article, the NY Times setup a Q&A for Zimmern to discuss the bug world and some other items. And in case you wanted some recipes, NYT has you covered. They tell you the insects you can eat and some of the ways to eat them.

Of course, New York isn’t the only place interested in this kind of food. While, New York and L.A. often see the beginnings of fads around the country, there are plenty of other places interested in this bug world. At the University of Wisconsin (hey, I go there!) a former professor, Gene DeFoliart, used to do quite a bit of research on the topic. He ran a website called http://www.food-insects.com. At the website you can get the newsletter that he and other professors from around the country contributed to regarding the subject.

Now, we’ll move on to what you’re really interested in. The what to eat, who to eat, how to eat. First, we’ll start with Rick Bayless and his grasshopper tacos.

“If there’s one dish that Chicago’s super chef Rick Bayless wishes Chicagoans would lighten up about and learn to love, it’s: “Grasshopper tacos. Whenever I mention them, it always elicits a gasp from people because all they focus on is the most bizarre qualities of that particular dish. The Mexicans have been eating insects for centuries …”

That quote came from the Chicago Tribune in 2007, and he isn’t the only one attempting to keep that tradition going in the United States. Robert Sietsma talks about his own experiences trying out grasshopper tacos in Philadelphia. And for those thinking grasshoppers don’t have any benefits, he’s quick to mention protein is twice as much as beef and there are plenty of nutrients available within.

So now that we have been tasting some grasshopper tacos, how about some fried tarantula? One man, Jerry Hopkins has tried pretty much everything you could imagine in the world, including these Cambodian treats (On a side note, read about him trying his son’s placenta, not sure if even I could do that). Darrin DuFord takes a real look at the history and how to eat fried tarantulas. And, if you prefer another insect to be fried, checkout this Phucket dining guide. Of course, in America this delicacy is a lot harder to come by. So, let’s instead move on to dessert.

I’ll start you with a chocolate ant recipe. If you’re too lazy or gross to do it yourself, order them from the candy warehouse.

I’m assuming for those still left, the lingering why still remains. First, those food fearing nations might need to truly suck it up and eat insects for the fact that food supplies aren’t what they used to be. The article also talks about a great salad with crickets if interested.  Also from the article, the most telling part of this battle that will creep up quicker than people think:

“The world is already struggling to feed itself, a crisis that shows no signs of abating unless population trends make a sudden U-turn over the next five decades. The oceans are being plundered at such a rate that – according to a recent UN report – even if we halve the number of fishing trawlers operating, fish stocks would still be unable to replenish themselves quickly enough to recover. Developing world nations such as India, China and Brazil, meanwhile, are cultivating their own rapidly expanding middle classes who are emulating the West in their demand for meat.”

In addition to the carrying capacity and food supply, general environmental effects are very important. The more animals killed, the worse it is for the environment as a whole.

“The livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.”

That report from the United Nations in 2006 helps explain why eating bugs might not be so bad in the long run to get your protein.  This article from Discover magazine helps break it down a little more.

Alright, so we’ve reached the end. Here’s one more in depth look at the culture of entomophagy.  And favorite bugs from around the world from PBS. (I felt obligated since the picture at the top is theres after all.)

And some helpful recipes:

A variety of grasshopper recipes including Grasshopper Fritters.

Recipes from Clemson, including Mealworm spaghetti.

Banana Wormbread and a host of others.

The Pig- Mr. Versatility

I’m just going to come out and throw this statement at you: The pig is the most versatile animal in the meat industry today.

Instead of advertising pork as “The Other White Meat,” let the world know that the pig can be cooked in a bevy of ways. Before we rip into the un-Kosher meat, let’s look back at my history with the pig.

Growing up in a Jewish household, pork was not something promoted within the house. Sure, I had the occasional strip of bacon at a Big Boy breakfast buffet or a pepperoni pizza (a double violation of the rules), but it was rare. The first time and most familiar I had become with a pig was Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. He was lovable, no doubt, and I understood why my people wouldn’t want to eat such fun creatures.

As I grew older, so did my fascination with food. By this point, the scenes of Wilbur no longer endeared me. Not even Babe could deter me from ripping through bacon and ribs on a regular basis. Then, in 2009, my admiration for the animal reached its peak.

As I walked through Madrid, the Museo del Jamon stared me down. I knew at that moment, I would have to make a new friend. We flirted at first. I’d walk by it on my way to a real museum and tell myself, you’ll go inside soon. I’d go as far as walking in, looking around, and walking out.  It was still early in my travels and I knew minimal Spanish to begin with. I took chances at other restaurants first, engulfing jamon iberico sandwiches at random locations. I finally knew I wanted to make sure I took advantage of this Museum of Ham. Finally, with a day to spare, I entered determined to eat. I remember pointing at the sign and accepting whatever they gave me. I knew at that moment, the pig could never disappoint.

Since then, I’ve eaten all sorts of pig from Morcillo (blood sausage) to pig ear and whole pork knuckles (cartilage included). The pig can be used and eaten in a variety of delicious ways.

And now, after getting my self-obsessive pig story out of the way I will take you threw the pig breeding process.

Pigs are typically noted as dirty animals and a tad bit destructive. This means, especially early, you have to monitor them closely. Keeping them in a clean environment is important. Don’t believe the media scandal that tells you pigs love their own filth. If you help keep their area clean, the pigs will do their part as well. For those offended by their mud baths, the truth is, they need those to keep cool and clean, plus they invented the mud bath well before spas began charging hundreds of dollars for them. Check and mate.

This site about pig breeding helps introduce the basics of early life. Important to note, if the mother pig isn’t in some sort of crate/contraption, the breeder runs the risk of having the piglets crushed during the first few month. With usually 14 teats to extract milk from, the piglets are well serviced. From there, they begin to live the normal life of feeding. Here are five additional tips of the type of environment they should have ready to go.

From there the cycle continues. This pig production chart from ukagriculture.com helps show the process and time it takes to get to the slaughter point. 

As you see at the end, the slaughter is the final destination. If you want to see the actual process check out this photo and caption timeline of the final chapter in a pig’s life. I do warn it’s a bit graphic and even depressing if you’ve ever been attached to pigs like Babe, Little Cory (of Boy Meets World fame), or Wilbur.

But the good news are the final products. Led by bacon and accompanied with ribs, ham, pork chops, and everything else, the pig offers up many delightful tastings. How about some Dr. pepper ribs or bacon wrapped smokies. And check out a wide range of recipes from thepigsite.com.

And to cap it off, here’s a video from a friend (from My Backyards Chicken fame) highlighting the greatness of one product, bacon.

Fast Food Meat

Let’s get the basics out of the way. At some point in your life, you’ve eaten some form of fast food meat. In fact, you probably sneak a taco, roast beef, or bacon double cheeseburger every once in a while. But, there’s also been that point where you’ve questioned what exactly you are eating. I’ll come out and admit, I used to be a bottom-tier fast food junkie*(see below for details). In my undergrad days of college I’d have McDonalds breakfast at 4 a.m daily. Luckily, after I graduated I quit that habit and shy away from fast food. If I’m going to eat unhealthy food, I’d much rather do it at one of those places on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives or unique to the city I’m in.

Before I go any further, let me say: this is not an attempt to turn you off from fast food. If you want to eat it, more power to you. In recent times, movies that attempt to exploit the fast food world and the occasional story documenting the ill health effects have been the craze. I’m just taking the simple approach of looking at the meat (to determine how much is actual meat), how they get their meat, and some regulations out there. Some of this stuff might be tough to digest (both literally and figuratively.)

First, fast food meat is legal and edible. For example rumors of Arby’s roast beef being liquid or gelatin are not true. The packaging the meat arrives in has a gelatin type broth/preservative that helps maintain freshness and flavor, causing confusion to those looking to take out the industry. These companies do stringent testing on the meats. Whether places like Mcdonalds and Burger King do so to avoid insane lawsuits or out of caring for their customer base is up for debate. The biggest problems, however, stem from animal care, production, and a low-grade quality product. These are the areas where things begin going downhill.

The question of “where does this meat come from?” is perhaps the most legitimate question surrounding these chains. And the truth is, they couldn’t tell you specifically. Fast food chains have their meat factories and suppliers they use, but in the ground beef they create dozens of different cows may be used. There aren’t farms used to produce the meats, these are in fact factories. Many are just feeding lots where the cows stay in one spot eating as much corn/grain mixed with antibiotics and hormones as possible. It sounds bad, and it probably is, but it still produces an acceptable quality of meat if the production methods go correctly.

Within the production is where the problems lie. Because these animals are essentially living in one solitary spot, and constantly eating, they can get quite dirty. A combination of food, fecal matter, and any other excess waste might end up on or around them. That’s where the debate begins when addressing poop making it into hamburgers. Does it happen? Yes. Very rarely and that’s when E.coli comes into play. Is it as common as some people like to make it seem? No.  Check out these interviews from Frontline to see both sides of the safety argument.

The process of cleaning these animals and retrieving the meat can be very difficult and must be done thoroughly. In an industry that produces obscene tonnage of meat that is expected to be processed extremely fast, mistakes can be made. The fast food meat factories have to supply so many places around the world that almost 400 cattle an hour are slaughtered. The number itself is crazy, but to think workers must wash every animal, clean out intestines and other body parts, plus be careful enough not to hurt yourself with these machines and knives, it’s a difficult task. Since 1993, when there was a huge outbreak almost ending the Jack in the Box franchises, companies and the country are a little more strict in the way they go about the process before and after. Jack in the Box went bankrupt at the time and are just now expanding nationally, a plan that may have been set back by 20 years.

The company most attacked now for their process isn’t Mcdonalds or Burger King. The fast food chain: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Led by those crazy folks at PETA (just watch the video and you’ll see), a site called Kentucky Fried Cruelty has led undercover investigations to see how this company treats their chicken and the quality that comes after. While they tend to overdramatize some of the stuff, it has been found workers at these plants abuse these animals beyond their ultimate fate of slaughter. Chickens have been found in cages that are unsafe causing them to get stuck and break wings or legs. The chickens are also shocked, cut and dumped into boiling water. The chickens that are used have gained weight in double the amount of time of a normal life span.

So now that the processing is complete, how bout the meat itself?  This is where things get interesting. In Europe, the meat is better quality. They have more restrictions and better regulations. It tastes better and smells better.  In America most the meat used is commercial grade. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s also not really graded. In fact, meat goes by 8 different categories: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. Within these categories, there can be grades of “1-5” placed on the meat. But this is not a requirement. Thus, majority of the commercial grade meat just makes it through USDA inspection so it won’t kill you and it goes from there.  Once again, the meat itself is edible. Poultry uses different grades as well. For the whole grading scale and to learn more check out the whole grading scale and regulations of all meats and poultry.

So you’re thinking I didn’t really explain how the meat truly is. But, thanks to an article published last December in USA Today, fast-food standards for meat both safety and quality are actually better than those in the Educational system. Who said our country didn’t care? The truth is, commercial grade meat is exactly as it sounds. Of course, don’t be fooled by Angus Beef either. The newest trick for fast food restaurants has been the “Angus Beef” craze. It’s “higher quality” than other meats they serve. It’s juicy and has more to it. Certified Angus Beef brings on the illusion, as Joe’s Butcher Shop explains, that this means high quality. He also shows a solid comparison of what each meat grade means. While that is more based on steaks, it still helps show the difference.

Finally, once the actual meat must preserved to reach these places, this is where the true problem lies. If there was a way for McDonalds to constantly process cows in a magical basement of everyone of their restaurants, the quality of the meat might actually be better. Unfortunately, because of the amount there is and the distance each little strip of beef must travel to join with it’s little beef strip friends, stuff must be added. For many chicken products, sodium phosphate seems to be popular. Throw in some MSG, Oils, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, and you’re almost halfway to what they give you. For a great list of added chemicals to all foods, beyond meats click here.

So… I won’t deny, I’ll still eat fast food every once in a while. The process is bad and what they add after is bad. It’s even worse that the government isn’t as strict as they should be. That might be even more alarming than the fast food chains themselves. Some of them do it the right way. Five Guys, In-n-Out Burger, and so on have healthier operations. Even Chipotle, once owned by Mcdonalds, does it in a way that isn’t cruel and even a bit healthier. The prices might be a little bit more expensive, but there are at least options out there.

Don’t worry, I will soon be looking at fancier meats from high quality restaurants. As well as more parts of the body for you to enjoy. If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free as always…

*To make myself feel better in life, I have separated different styles of fast food into “tiers.” McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, Arby’s, KFC, and so on in my mind are example of bottom-tier fast food. Restaurants like Pancheros, Potbellys, Five Guys, and Pei Wei are second-tier and thus acceptable in my world.

When Searching for New Meat, Don’t Overlook the Tongue or Liver

There used to be a time when items as simple as the tongue and liver were quite commonplace for daily meals. In some countries, it still is. In the United States, however, true organ meat (yep, that tongue in your mouth is an organ) became a terrifying thought for hungry consumers. Many have no problem destroying their own livers with copious amount of booze or wasting taste buds with smoking and poor food choices, but to eat an animal’s tongue or liver is crossing the line.

Liver and tongue really aren’t that hard to find, even in America. Go to any Jewish deli and find yourself a nice tongue sandwich or at the least some chopped liver. Even if you search hard enough at a grocery store, you might be able to find some chicken or beef livers. Farmers markets don’t usually advertise those parts of the body, but trust me, they’re not throwing out anything they can sell. If you’re in the south, especially Texas, tongue or liver aren’t that unaccessible. And, if you find a traditional old family restaurant you might even be able to get the classic liver and onions kids grew to despise or love in past generations.

Organ meats, however, are attempting a bit of a comeback. With gastropubs the “hot” genre of restaurant in America, these delicacies are more common on menus all across the country. The liver is often made as fancy påtés and pickled tongue on rye is now a posh meal to be washed down with a high volume beer.

So what makes these items something you would ever want to try?

First, the tongue, definitely the more uncommon of the two. And just so you can get started, here is a recipe from the New York Times earlier this year for Barbecue Beef Tongue. Tongue isn’t the healthiest of red meat alternatives, but it’s quite tasty. After getting over the initial shock of “Wow, I’m eating a tongue,” you’ll find the texture and flavor to be quite tender and juicy. Obviously you get the basic proteins that are found in most red meats, but the most important purpose is the amount of B-12 in the tongue. B-12 is another one of those essential vitamins that are often obtained through supplemental means. There’s nothing wrong with taking a chance on the tongue if there are health benefits you can get naturally.

On the downside, there have been some worries over time of the tongue/mad cow connection. The trick around this, get the tongue from someone you trust. If a cow is over a certain age, around 30 months, that’s when their tongue becomes more susceptible. The tonsils must also be completely removed in order for it to be considered safe. But do not feat, there are regulations in place to prevent this and it is monitored closely. In 2009, there was actually a beef tongue recall. I suggest your first attempt, if you can afford it, would be to get your tongue from a deli or nice restaurant. Then, explore it on your own.

Below is a solid recipe for tongue tacos when you’re ready to take that leap into the kitchen.

For more tongue facts go here.

Now, the liver is a bit more popular in mainstream, the past, and probably around most cultures. It’s not as daunting as a giant tongue, but many people are turned off by the smell and taste. Often liver is accompanied by onions or strong sauces to counteract some of the turn-offs. There are also the options of grinding it into a pate or creating a chopped liver with onions, eggs, and other mixtures many of the benefits can be obtained.

And there are a lot of liver benefits. It is one of the most mineral rich organs that people like to dive into. As explained the University of Nebraska’s meat science division, liver is a great source for riboflavin, copper, Vitamin A and Vitamin B-12 (like our friend the tongue). It also can give you protein, iron, zinc, and other items that aren’t traditionally sought out, but important for the body. Liver isn’t that high in fat compared to other organs and can be taken from a calf, cow, pig, or chicken. For a classic recipe, here is some good old liver and onions to strive for at home. Don’t worry, there haven’t been any recent liver recalls in the U.S.

But let’s not forget, like every body part, this one has controversy too. Perhaps the most popular edible liver out there, foie gras (goose liver), has made a comeback at fancy restaurants. Places like Chicago lifted their ban on the item that melts in your mouth . Of course, foie gras, while tasty if it’s done right is much maligned for the animal cruelty that goes into creating the perfect goose or duck liver. Many farms are said to force feed these animals to get the liver as fatty as possible. In fact, some are fed fat directly in mass quantities that no animal would consume in regular doses. For a solid read, our friend wikipedia breaks down the Foie Gras debate worldwide. In the past few years, however, there has been a strong movement for “freedom foie gras” and letting them live in a way where they aren’t being stuffed to die. Check out this Minnesota foie gras farm to see how they have managed the delicate delectable.

Feel free to leave comments about your favorite memories or fears about trying these organ meats.