The first time Kay Weisberg cooked with insects she was an entomology student at the University of Georgia. To add protein to a loaf of bread she was baking, Weisberg stirred minced grasshoppers into the dough. She remembers there wasn't anything unusual about the bread except for its "little green flecks."
As the director of the Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution, Kay Weisberg, 27, knows her bugs. She scours the world for exotic insects, designs exhibits that enthrall the children and adults who find her corner of the National Museum of Natural History and, every once in a while, puts her insects where her mouth is.
"The problem is people's revulsion at the thought of eating an insect," says Weisberg, who likes to make chocolate chip cookies with mealworms to convince the skeptical that insects, properly prepared, can be tasty. "People talk about using the ocean for a food source, but it's expensive. You could take an acre of cattle and use the excrement to raise face flies and double the amount of protein grown in that acre."
Not that this would be news in some parts of the world. Weisberg notes that in movie theaters in Peru and Ecuador, popcorn is unknown. Toasted leaf-cutter ants are what's sold for snacks. The formic acid in ants adds a tangy flavor to rice in Borneo. In Australia, lemonade is made from green weaver ants. Grasshoppers, the world's most widely eaten insects, are 40 percent higher in protein than the equivalent serving of a round steak and may be served toasted, fried, boiled, ground up or dried. And you weight watchers, take note that there are only 56 calories in 100 grams of termites, which eaten raw have a slight taste of pineapple.
"People are eating insects all the time, they just don't know it," says Weisberg, who notes that FDA guidelines allow a certain proportion of insects in some food products. Weisberg ticks off examples: in every 100 grams of tomato paste, manufacturers are permitted either 30 fruit fly eggs or 15 eggs and one maggot. Canned mushrooms may have 20 maggots of any size per 100 grams, and there's no limit to the amount of aphids, mites or thrips permitted in apple butter. "We eat honey, but it probably wouldn't sell if it was called 'bee vomit,' which it is." But pop an uncooked immature honey bee in your mouth, and you'll get 1,500 times the U.S. recommended daily allowance for vitamin D.
Weisberg's passion is the study of insects, which she says offer lessons in evolution, adaptation, diversity and food chains. And she doesn't want the novelty of cooking with insects to obscure the seriousness of her work.
"But," says Weisberg, "I tell people who worry about cockroaches in their kitchen, 'You ought to worry more about BHA and BHT, nitrates, and the asbestos fibers that you breathe every time someone puts on their brakes.'