How to Eat Bugs and Like It

Dr. John C. Abbott, Director of Wild Basin Preserve

Dr. John C. Abbott, Director of Wild Basin Preserve

My guest today is Dr. John C. Abbott, Director of the Wild Basin Creative Research Center (http://think.stedwards.edu/wildbasin/) in Austin, Texas, a part of St. Edward’s University.

Thank you for being with us today, John. Tell us a little bit about Wild Basin. The Wild Basin Creative Research Center serves as an extension of the St. Edward’s University main campus and includes 227 acres within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system. The preserve is open to the public for trail hiking and events. Wild Basin also offers volunteer opportunities and guided school tours.The Wild Basin Creative Research Center is an educational resource that provides extensive learning opportunities for students and the general public.

I understand you study dragonflies and damselflies. How did you get interested in insects? I have been interested in insects since I was a little kid. They have always fascinated me, I think largely because of their amazing diversity in numbers, form and behavior. I didn’t, however, develop a particular interest in dragonflies and damselflies until I was an undergrad in college. I was helping a graduate student in the lab I worked in, when he pointed a dragonfly out to me and said, no one is really working on this group, you should….the rest is history.

Insects in Thai market

Insects in Thai market

 I heard you say something about eating insects. Are you kidding? Not at all. The US and Western Europe are among the few cultures that don’t regularly eat insects. This isn’t because other countries are poor and they have no choice, it is because it makes sense, both nutritionally and efficiently to raise, harvest, and eat insects. They contain large amounts of protein and other nutritionally beneficial vitamins and minerals we need. They are abundant; there are more insects on the planet than any other group of animals (some 1 million species currently known). In fact, they are so numerous that they are impossible to keep out of our food supply, even if we wanted. I call this FDA sanctioned entomophagy, which is the practice of eating insects.  The government allows a certain amount of insects (or insect parts) in all our foods because you simply can’t keep them out. If you have ever eaten peanut butter, salads, or fig newtons, you have eaten insects.Most cultures around the world actively practice entomophagy (or eating insects). In most Asian markets, you will find numerous types of insects available. In Mexico they have a stink bug festival where not only do they eat stink bugs, but they also crown a Ms. Stink Bug!

Why would anybody want to eat bugs? Insects are plentiful, easily raised or harvested, and nutritionally beneficial.

Bug sushi

Bug sushi

They are also a sustainable food resource. So it is a simple matter of economics, for your pocketbook and the planet. Raising insects is much cheaper and has much less of an impact on the planet than see raising cattle. An economist at the University of Wisconsin, David Madison, once calculated that 1 person could collect 18.5 lbs. of Mormon crickets in a single hour. This many crickets contain 23,500 calories or the same as 87 chili dogs, 49 slices of pizza, or 43 big macs….think of how much effort has to go into producing those foods vs. just one hour collecting insects. Companies are ultimately concerned with their bottom dollar recognize this. One common example of an insect that is regularly used in our American food supplies is the cochineal. It is a type of scale insect that you can find on prickly pear cacti in the south. They actually raise them on cacti in large greenhouses in Mexico. They produce a deep red pigment that is better than artificial pigments for food coloring. So, many bright red foods (Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice, Gummy Bears, Mentos, Maraschino Cherries, etc…) get their red color from these insects. Companies list it write on the ingredients label.

Bug pizza

Bug pizza

Can you share any good recipes with us? The typical insect has a nutty taste to it, but in general they will pick up the flavor of whatever you cook them with or the spices that you use. So, we (well, really my wife, she is the cook in the family) often make desert items with insects when we are introducing the idea to others, because who doesn’t like sweets! You can also make some nutritionally healthy flour from insects, by drying them and then grinding them up. Some of my favorite items are Chocolate Chirp Cookies and Waxworm Fritters. There are actually a number of cookbooks out there focused on insect recipes (http://tinyurl.com/op4d2th). There is even a newsletter (http://www.foodinsectsnewsletter.org/)!

Are all insects edible? What should the novice insect gourmet look for? No, some insects are not edible because

Grubs and insects are eaten in many parts of the world.

Grubs and insects are eaten in many parts of the world.

they are toxic, or simply so small or hard to collect it wouldn’t make sense to harvest them as food. One source lists some 1400+ insects (out of the 1 million currently known) that are regularly eaten around the world. The big groups are ants, bees, and wasps, beetles, butterflies, and finally grasshoppers, roaches and crickets. It is the softer-bodied immatures of most of these insects that are used for food. They are more easily digested and easier to collect, so we are talking about eating caterpillars or beetle grubs, not an adult butterfly or big, hard beetle. You want to look for easily collected or obtained insects to use in food. Many insects are easily raised in large numbers. A good place to start is with mealworms (beetle larvae) that can be easily obtained from your local pet store.

Chapaulines, or grasshoppers, in Oaxaca, Mexico

Chapaulines, or grasshoppers, in Oaxaca, Mexico

Where can I try some? In the US, most edible insects are sold as novelty items. A company by the name of HotLix makes lollipops with crickets, mealworms and scorpions for example. You can often find these in novelty stores, but they are also available online. You might try local grocery stores catering to specific ethnic groups (Asian markets, Fiesta, etc…). Little Herds (http://littleherds.org/) is a local nonprofit that just got started. They are actively promoting insects as a sustainable food resource and have events where you can try eating insects. If you want to try cooking your own insects, you should make sure the insects have not been exposed to any pesticides. In other words, it isn’t wise to collect insects locally, especially in urban environments, because of all the insecticides that are used. There are several companies however, that raise insects specifically to be used as a food source for pet reptiles and amphibians. You can purchase insects from them, knowing they have not been exposed to insecticides and then cook them for use in your own recipes.

Many thanks, John. I learned a lot. Time for some crunchy cricket chips!

 

 

 

Jack and Missy Harrington: Landowners and Benefactors

Jack and Missy Harrington

Jack and Missy Harrington

I’m glad to welcome Jack and Missy Harrington from Comstock, Texas, to the blog today. They have lived in the Lower Pecos area all their lives, maintaining family ranches and contributing to the small town of Comstock in many ways.  Comstock is located 29 miles west of Del Rio, Texas, near the Rio Grande, in a region known for rock art that is thousands of years old. The town was founded in 1882 when the railroad built a station there. Currently the town has a population of 223.

Thanks for being with us today.  How did your family get to Comstock?  Missy: My great-grandfather bought the land sight unseen because he was told it had rivers on three sides, about 9000 acres. They lived in Mexico at the time. Five of their kids died of smallpox when little. When the two girls got older the family moved across the river to the property. They didn’t know there were steep cliffs to get to all the

Paintings of Painted Shelter rock art by Forrest Kirkland

Paintings of Painted Shelter rock art by Forrest Kirkland

water, and that the cows couldn’t get to it!  Grandmother didn’t want to live out on the ranch with a baby, so they got a house in the town of Comstock.

Tell me about growing up here. What did you think of the rock art?  Missy: I was born and  raised in Comstock, but Jack was from Del Rio. We used to have picnics at Painted Shelter [ on grandfather’s property], and I thought everybody had paintings on the wall. Kids could play in the water in the creek there, and the grown ups liked the deeper holes.  I wish I had known more about the rock art when I was a kid. The rock art’s not gonna last for ever. It makes sense to educate people about it. I remember when they built Seminole Canyon State Park. My family owned that property. I remember my grandmother was so mad cause the state wanted it so they could “take care of it.” Who did they think had

Harrington Campus pavillion at Shumla School, near Comstock, Texas

Harrington Campus pavilion at Shumla School, near Comstock, Texas

been taking care of it for 100 years?

A few years ago you donated land to the Shumla School, an outdoor experiential school and research center for rock art and archaeology run by Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Yes, now they have the Harrington campus. After hearing Carolyn’s ideas to have a school, we decided why not? We deeded about 70 acres to Shumla as a non-profit about 1998. We had two field experiences for teachers before we had any facilities of any kind. They used portable showers in plastic bags. The pavilion and bath house were built first.  Bath house finished the Friday before the Monday.  Immediately we had a teacher training for all Comstock teachers the end of August. It was 112 degrees.  The workshop impressed the teachers for years. We’ve both worked with Shumla ever since.   Now they do programs for kids–all the Comstock and Del Rio kids have come–and for teachers. Each spring Carolyn holds a rock art workshop for adults. This past spring the Harrington campus was used by Dr. Steve Black for his Ancient Southwest Texas Project through Texas State University.

How did you and Jack meet? Missy: He used to date my neighbor. But he decided to check around for other quail. The way it was, Comstock girls had to date Comstock boys, but not the other way around. I broke out of that. We started going together when I was a junior in high school, and now we’ve been married 47 years.

Congratulations! That’s a pretty good record!  You went to college in San Antonio, right Missy? I went to Incarnate Word San Antonio. My degree is in biology, with minors in chemistry and math. I had a job lined up in research. I didn’t plan to teach school. But we decided to move back, and the only job was teaching school in Del Rio. I’d never seen a grade book before in my life. But I taught 31 years all together, 3 in Del Rio, 28 in Comstock.

Comstock ISD

Comstock ISD

Tell me about teaching school.  Missy: Well, I went to school in Comstock, K-12. We had about 90 kids back then.  We had 125 when I taught, a lot of small classes, maybe one or two kids. Sometimes 20.  We had three computers Apple 11e . You wear a lot of hats in a small school. I taught every science from 6th grade  to 12th grade. Now there are about 200 kids. One day a boy was swinging a dead rattlesnake around his head scaring the girls. I made him throw it away, and he coiled it in the trash can to scare the janitor.

Jack, you were on the Comstock ISD school board for 20 years. Yes,  I have a soft spot in my heart about school. It’s remarkable what some of these kids can do. This year we were ninth overall in UIL in Division 1A, and tied for first in physics. Diego Fausett, did that. His coach is Dr. Phil Dering, who teaches science in Comstock now, instead of Missy. Nobody falls through the cracks in Comstock ISD. Class size capped at 18. More

Students from Comstock ISD in Shumla Scholars program  work with Ancient South West Texas Project in Spring, 2014

Students from Comstock ISD in Shumla Scholars program work with Ancient Southwest Texas Project in Spring, 2014

individualized, one on one. Good teachers. Lot of home-grown teachers. Strong culture of the school. Many teachers were Missy’s students. K-12 intermingle. It’s good cause the little kids look up to the older one, and older ones model good behavior. They’re sisters and brothers. Older kids can work with the younger ones. Everybody takes care of everybody. The kids are safe and they know they are. Comstock ISD has over 2000 sq. miles, but only 50-60 kids live in CISD. The rest come from Del Rio. Three busses bring them. Kids have to apply to come to Comstock. They can’t have bad grades, failed tests, or bad behavior. If they break the rules they go home. We don’t compromise. We set standards and we hold ’em. Missy: I planted the cottonwood trees when I was a freshmen in high school. There were only two trees on campus when I was in school. Our principal bought about 11 trees. Now there are about 40 trees and lots of grass.

You were also with the volunteer fire department, right Jack?  I was a volunteer with the fire dept. for 40 years. There was a fire around Juno [ now a ghost town]  in the 1990s burned over 20,000 acres, took about two weeks to put out.  This spring there was one near Pandale, then around Juno too. Burn bans are serious. Forest service came in for this one, and another big crew came to cook and set up a kitchen. They had a huge mobile kitchen and 18-wheelers full of food, and big refrigerated trucks. There were over 300 fireman. We served dinner in the school cafeteria. About 6 of these volunteers and 5-6 of us local Comstock folks.  We cooked breakfast, made sandwiches for lunch, and made dinner at night. They would come at daylight.  Volunteers came from everywhere:Wisconsin, Colorado, Montana, California, fireman from everywhere. The kindergarten kids made laminated placemats for the firemen. The men took them home with them.

What makes Comstock a good place to live? Missy:  It’s nice and quiet. We don’t even have a key to the house. We’ve never locked the house, even when I read Helter Skelter. It’s just a different way of life. We grocery shop like a rancher, go to town once a week. The two custodians at school across the street keep their soda water in our refrig on the breezeway. It’s peaceful. No traffic. Might have to worry about a cow or two on the road, though.

Thank you both for talking with us today! As of this publication date,  Jack and Missy are in Houston awaiting the call for a  medical procedure. Best wishes, Smilin’ Jack! We wish you only good things!