Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The third storyline explores current innovations and visions for ecological, equitable food systems. Find more stories envisioning Food Futures here.
I am standing in the kitchen of Los Angeles’s renowned Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza, watching as the chef sautées chapulines – grasshoppers – in a frying pan. He tosses them high into the air with a practiced flick of the wrist, adding chopped onion, tomato, jalapeño, and a squirt of lime juice. He pours the panful of insects into two waiting tortilla cups, fanning out a sliced avocado on the side of the plate, along with some shredded Oaxacan cheese.
A few minutes later, I take a second to examine the chapulines as I sit at one of the restaurant’s festive oil-cloth-covered tables. Their insect features – the distinct head and thorax, wings shellacked to their bodies – are recognizable. I tear up the cheese and sprinkle the sauce over the top, and, after a moment of hesitation, I take a bite. The flavor is salty and citrusy, with a pleasant crunch.
In the United States, insects are often described as a food of the future that conjures environmental dystopia – a protein of last resort that will become compulsory when the energy requirements and environmental conditions of livestock and the precarity of fisheries finally necessitate massive food system change. But 80 percent of the world already eats insects, with longstanding culinary traditions from fried scorpions in China to spiced termites in Nigeria. To most of the world, insects are not a future food nor a means of basic survival, but a seasonal and regional ingredient to be procured, farmed, prepared, and enjoyed.
In recent years, edible insects have experienced a wave of media attention in the United States, but Guelaguetza has had chapulines on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1994. When I ask Bricia Lopez, who co-owns the restaurant with her three siblings, how her father decided to put chapulines on the menu, she explains that the dish was a given.
“It’s not something you decide, it’s just something that’s done,” she says. “Chapulines are part of the Oaxacan culture and part of the Oaxacan diet, so being a Oaxacan restaurant, we just thought it’s obvious that we would serve chapulines.”
“If you’re from Oaxaca, you definitely always order them, it’s a must on every table,” Lopez explains. “But I think that recently more people are open to experiencing different flavors and being adventurous and ordering. People today want to really experience the culture, and I think that coming here to the restaurant and having chapulines makes them a little bit closer to that.”
Even as numerous sources proclaim that insects are a food of the future, Guelaguetza demonstrates how they are connected to both the global past and present. While the traditional Oaxacan dish helps people connect to a piece of Mexican culture, edible insects are also helping people in the U.S. connect to more sustainable sources of protein.
In a commercial kitchen in San Mateo, south of San Francisco, Monica Martinez pours crickets and mealworms onto baking sheets, shaking them to spread the insects in even layers. The edible bugs will get toasted in a walk-in oven to become key ingredients in one of seven snack products sold by Martinez’s company, Don Bugito. Some will be covered in chocolate, others mixed with sugar and coconut to form a toffee, while others will turn savory, mixed with chili-lime and pepitas or tossed with Peruvian cancha corn.
Martinez grew up in Mexico City and came to the United States for college, where her first experience of cafeteria food made her realize the disconnect between farm and plate in the U.S. Several years later, after earning an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Martinez became interested in edible insects as a way of subverting the American industrial farm system.
“I came to find out that the United States has been growing insects for a long time,” she explains. “And these insects are edible insects. The reason why in the United States we’re raising edible insects is to feed chicken and fish. So, if you eat farmed chicken or farmed fish, you mostly eat insects. That’s when I had the idea: let’s remove the farmed chicken and the farmed fish and go straight to the protein.”
She began by designing tabletop farms that would allow Americans to raise insects in their own kitchens, just like making their own yogurt or pickles (“maybe I was way too ahead,” she says, laughing). A 2009 gallery show at the EyeLevel BQE Gallery in Brooklyn led to a five-course pop-up insect dinner at the Brooklyn Kitchen. Next came the Don Bugito food truck, launched in San Francisco in 2011, serving tacos and tostadas topped with crickets and mealworms.
After building buzz and an avid customer base in the Bay Area, Don Bugito shifted to its current incarnation as a snack company in 2013, or, as it calls itself, a prehispanic snackeria. The company’s recipes, Martinez explains, are inspired by pre-Columbian and pre-Hispanic cuisines – the ingredients and flavors that were present on the American continent before colonialism. “Mexican cuisine is really smart. We call it ancestral,” Martinez says. “In pre-Columbian times, we were more in harmony with the entire ecosystem.”
As edible insects have gained attention in the United States, multiple companies have sprung up featuring insect protein; two of the most notable being EXO, which makes protein bars from cricket flour, and Chapul, which also sells cricket protein bars as well as cricket protein powder. But Don Bugito remains distinct in its commitment to showcasing the entire insect.
“We don’t want to convert our insects into just flour and turn them into just one more ingredient with many, many, many more ingredients,” Martinez explains. “We see it this way: there’s a problem in the food system not only because of factory farms and many other things, but also people don’t want to acknowledge where the food comes from or what food is. People remove the chicken skin, the bones, and they want to have a little piece of something cute, ready on the plate. So we are fighting that. We are fighting.”
Now, Don Bugito products are sold in fifty stores nationwide, including the mini-chain MOM’s Organic Market on the East Coast; Martinez has also recently started an insect farm in Oakland in order to secure the company’s supply chain. But breaking into the market and educating consumers has been a long process. For the first four years, Martinez notes, the company made no money; instead, the focus was on educating consumers and distributors about both the value of edible insects, with a focus on explaining the environmental benefits of including insects in our diet and moving away from a reliance on the resource-intensive farming of meat.
“Insects are for sure viable as a replacement for proteins like cattle, poultry, pigs,” she says, explaining that it is impossible for us to continue current livestock practices, which deplete forests, pollute water, and generate greenhouse gases. “Don Bugito doesn’t quite preach to stop eating red meat, to stop eating this, but maybe just to consider thinking about one day out of the week or two days out of the week to start including insects in your diet just as you may include beans or lentils or some other types of proteins.”
Back in the commercial kitchen, Martinez hands me a piece of Don Bugito’s coconut brittle bugitos: toffee studded with coconut and toasted mealworms. One of their most popular products, the coconut brittle bugitos were also featured in an ice cream at Portland-based chain Salt & Straw, along with the chocolate-covered crickets.
I take a look at the candy before I eat it; again, the bodies of the mealworms are distinct, the segmented cylindrical body protruding from the sugary base. I pop the brittle into my mouth. It tastes earthy and nutty, with the mealworms adding a depth of savory flavor to the caramel and coconut.
The mealworms may not be cute, exactly. But after I eat one piece, I reach immediately for another. As I crunch down, I think about what it means to be a future food. Whose future are we talking about? For the 80 percent of the world that already eats insects – with dishes including fried hornets in Japan to palm weevil larvae cooked over an open fire in Democratic Republic of Congo – insects are by no means a future food.
Thanks to culinary pioneers like Martinez and the Lopez family, the United States is just beginning to catch up to what is already the present all over the globe.
Top image: Don Bugito's Toasted Mealworms | Still from "Latina Food Pioneers Introduce Edible Insects As Alternative Protein"