Insect Fare

meal worm tamales

The mealworm tamales at Penn State’s Great Insect Fair this past Saturday were, indeed, a meal. The capsaicin hit about thirty seconds after the last bite, as a hot tamale should, and I found myself going back for seconds, and then thirds. There’s always something special about food that needs to be unwrapped, and if it contains the larvae of that most poetically named of all beetles — the tenebrionid or darkling beetle — well, that’s gravy. Of course, it helped that I’m not in the habit of examining my food too closely before popping it in my mouth.

Consuming mealworm larvae can amount to a kind of poetic justice, too, if they’ve managed to infest one’s grain supply. I’ll admit I’ve cooked up rice with flour moth larvae in it (though I’ve never served it to guests — don’t panic, y’all). It’s a way of making lemonade from lemons, and the results are usually much more nutritious than the unadulterated grain would’ve been. I’ve been told that the kinds of locusts that devastate crops are actually a culinary blessing in disguise.

insect food booth

They didn’t have any locusts on Saturday, but they did have two additional Mexican insect dishes at the food booth, and surprisingly, it was one of the few spots at the entire fair where I didn’t have to stand in line. My cousin Morgan graciously stepped to the side when I wanted to have a closer look at the wax moth bean dip.

wax moth bean dip

This time, the insect ingredient was a little harder to ignore. But isn’t that the most succulent larva you’ve ever seen? Beekeepers, take note: when the wax moths start eating your hives, you can can simply turn the tables on them.

wax moth guacamole

Then there was the guacamole. All three dishes were free, and very tasty.

It’s funny the prejudice we have against consuming terrestrial invertebrates, especially considering how much we prize certain aquatic invertebrates — shrimp, oysters, lobsters, clams, squid. But I guess that’s the point of the Great Insect Fair: to get people — especially kids — thinking about insects in a more objective light. It’s become a hugely popular annual event, packing the Ag Arena right across from Beaver Stadium, home of the Nittany Lions.

Greatest Show on Earth

It felt a little odd to attend a free event at the Penn State University Park campus. The fair did have its share of vendors, though. My mother couldn’t attend due to a back attack, so as a consolation gift I bought her a t-shirt with a picture of a caterpillar taking a crap and the message, “FRASS HAPPENS.”

Morgan wanted to buy a pair of live Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the worst way, but her mean old parents nixed the idea. She found plenty of kid-friendly activities to console herself with, though: making a paper butterfly out of a coffee filter, for example, and fishing for crawdads with a flyswatter (see the video in yesterday’s post).

mosquito table

In general, any display with live invertebrates drew a crowd. The mosquito guys were great, wielding a scary handpuppet of the World’s Deadliest Insect, and pointing out the differences between male and female mosquitos in the jars in front of them, which tempted visitors to crouch down and wait for one of the swarming larvae to complete its course and graduate to the upper chamber. A stuffed crow served as a reminder of the real victims of West Nile Virus, which tends to be downplayed in the local media because, after all, it rarely kills people.

hornet on the window of the Ag Arena

The turnout itself was the thing that impressed me the most. Who’d have thought going to the cockroach races would be a bigger draw than sitting at home and watching the Penn State-Illinois game? Next weekend, the fields across the road will once again be packed with tailgate parties, and the empty Ag Arena will echo with the roars of 100,000 football fans, but for one day, at least, insects reigned supreme.

In response to a prompt at Creek Running North.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

29 Comments


  1. Oh my, quite the culinary adventure you had. I had rice with moth larvae myself, though never out of choice, mind you….

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  2. I hope you’re submitting this to circus of the spineless!

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  3. I will, if I can figure out where to send it this time. I’ve been stymied a few times in the past.

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  4. In the spirit of this inspiring post, I thought people should know about Giantmicrobes.com which makes stuffed animals based on microbes people like to stay away from. Here is E. coli for example. [I have no financial stake in the company :>]

    Thanks for the great report Dave.

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  5. E. coli and salmonella plush dolls! I love it.

    Glad you liked the post, Shai.

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  6. yins weird!

    Hmmmm, I wonder how many cabbage worms I’ve eaten with my Broccoli this year?

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  7. Thanks for the great picture and stories of Morgan at the “Insect Fair” Your outstanding writing and description of events made it seem like I was there. sharing the experience with her. I…. as the Gram…. would have let her have those “hissing thingies”.
    AA

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  8. Keith – The FDA actually sets limits on the quantity of insect parts permitted in various foods. We’ve all eaten insects many, many times!

    ann nicely – Hey, glad you liked that! I did suggest they could buy a pair and simply leave them at your house, but then I figured you had your hands full with all those cats you take care of.

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  9. There are times when I feel far removed from the American experience!

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  10. Needless to say, I would have loved to have visited the Great Insect Fair! Too bad about the hissing cockroaches — they are quite fascinating and seem to make quite nice pets. I’ve often thought that there are several insects that kids could enjoy caring for and observing. For example, a young fellow in my area kept a pair of Harvestman through a winter. I have not knowingly eaten insects, but largely because I’m vegetarian anyhow. However, at a Darwin’s Day dinner about 3 years back, meal worms were on the menu — but not so artfully done as those tamales – they were just sauted.

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  11. Dick – Really? This isn’t the sort of event one would expect to see in Britain, eh?

    Bev – Hell, if you lived anywhere nearby, I imagine you would have been staffing a booth! There were a lot of amateur enthusiasts there. In any case, I’m sure the organizers would be happy to share their experience with others wishing to duplicate their success elsewhere…

    A straight saute of mealworms does seem like the kind of dish one would want to be blindfolded for, I must admit.

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  12. I was unaware the FDA has set controls over my own garden. I had better read up on those and get in compliance. I here the FDA goons can get very nasty.

    FDA “SIR, step away from the red cabbage. Those are NOT organic; we need to certify you first.�

    ME “but but but these are for my own consumption. I grew it for me.�

    FDA “ WHAT!!!! You un-american commi. No one grows there own food. Report to the Con-Agra economic re-education center IMMEDIATELY.�

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  13. Isn’t the USDA in charge of organic certification? Now THOSE are some scary m.f.ers.

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  14. Well, for us city-dwellers, half the insects around (especially cockroaches!) are living off our garbage, so they accumulate all sorts of nasty microbes and parasites. As far as locusts, I always figured they were declared kosher because once the locusts come through, there’s nothing else to eat….

    I suspect you’ve seen “Steve, Don’t Eat It!” before, but anyway, the last item on the page is silkworm pupae.

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  15. David – I’d never seen “Steve, Don’t Eat It!” before – thanks for several hundred belly laughs. However, I do question his taste. I like several of the things he expressed extreme aversion toward, including natto. I practically lived on that stuff when I was in Japan. Must be eaten with a raw egg, and followed with a shot of saké. Marmalade optional.

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  16. Well, Steve is playing it up for laughs. I’ve heard of people eating natto on rice for breakfast. I haven’t tried it myself, but I do like a lot of other Asian oddities, such as miso and lychees (one guy I offered fresh lychees to compared it to eating an eyeball!).

    It occurred to me recently that I haven’t had tempeh in a long time, maybe I’ll try playing with that a bit. Also,when I manage get down to my local Asian market here, I’m hoping I can find some mochi there. (Raw, it looks like lumps or boards of plastic, but when you bake it, it puffs into chewy little muffin-things, very good with jam or soy sauce.)

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  17. I was introduced to natto by my homestay father the first semester I was there. He had it every morning on his toast, on top of the marmalade. The last couple months I was in Japan, I ate natto on toast almost every day, because I was running out of money, and a friend and I had visited a natto culturing plant and walked away with two shopping bags full of free samples. The toast was free, because bakeries discard the heels of all their loaves, bag them up and put them out for people to use as pet food (or at least that was the polite fiction).

    Other Japanese oddities I have fond memories of are tsukemono (especially umeboshi); cucumber and wakame salad; fried lotus roots; okonomiyaki; takoyaki (octopus dumplings); kitsune udon; and sashimi so fresh it was still twitching. Mochi was never a favorite. I regret I never tried raw horsemeat.

    Lychees I’ve had, but they didn’t make any particualar impression on me. I cook with tempeh a lot – I like it better than tofu. In fact, I think I’ll cook it for supper tonight.

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  18. Hey Dave, thanks for your visit at Never Neutral. I thought you migh like to read my friend Adela’s latest post, here. I also recommended this post of yours to her and her readers.

    Greetings from London.

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  19. Wow, that’s certainly a different take on the subject! Thanks for stopping by and making the connection, Ernesto. Obviously, I disagree with the perspective that “bugs are just gross.” I think many people would agree that the majority of beetles, crickets and katydids are quite charismatic – to say nothing of butterflies and moths. Wasps and bumblebees are also quite cool. Then there’s mantids, and syrphid flies, and… oh yes, cockroaches. Those guys are gross.

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  20. Hmm. I often put wakame or laver in soups, ditto ramen. (It’s been a while since I found a really good udon/ramen restaurant that I could afford, though.) I’ve rarely met a dumpling I didn’t like, unless it was badly mis-cooked. I’ve had lotus root a few times (candied was interesting), maybe I’ll try frying some into my next stir-fry (with the tempeh?). I do like sushi and sashimi, but I think twitching sashimi would give me the twitches!

    (google google… ah!) The Japanese pickles I’ve seen in restaurants were too sweet for my taste, not to mention alarmingly Technicolored. The Wikipedia article on okonomiyaki looks interesting — I don’t usually mess with batters, but maybe I’ll try making some variation.

    Dang, but you do some cool blog… photos, poetry, nature, food….

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  21. ‘It’s funny the prejudice we have against consuming terrestrial invertebrates, especially considering how much we prize certain aquatic invertebrates ‘ , yes, I’ve often wondered about this, somehow we assume water’s cleaner than earth, whatever the facts. Have to say I’m only really comfortable with snails if someone else has prepared them and chopped them up with garlic.
    What’s that Japanese accompaniment thing that’s fermented beans ?- Not miso, I’m fairly sure, I know and like that. The beans are partially intact and sort of slimy and snotty. Anglo- Japanese, whose cooking I usually loved, used to serve it. I ate it but didn’t see the appeal.

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  22. That’s natto. I like the earthy taste of the slimy rot, but it’s definitely an acquired taste.

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  23. Just to follow up, I got the tempeh, but not the lotus root. (After hitting three big-box supermarkets in a row, my sensory overload left me too fried to get out to the Asian market.)

    I’d forgotten just how scary that stuff looks raw, but it fried up nicely with a bunch of veggies. (And sauce! balsamic vinegar, soy and hoisan sauces, chopped ginger, hot and sesame oils.)

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  24. Hey, that’s almost exactly what I put in a fried tempeh sauce!

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