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Feature Wed May 30 2007

Eating Bugs for My Fifteen Minutes

As I watched "Chicago Tonight" on Tuesday evening, I was humbled to be featured on a program that hosted a panel of experts who intelligently discussed gambling in Illinois, the author of a probing and important book about public defenders, and me, a guy who eats bugs.

I've been rather gratified by the copious interest in cicadas — and my interest in cooking and eating them.

It all started when I posted on Yelp.com about how I planned to cook up cicadas; a few weeks later, I got a call from Tara Burghart, a journalist who had read the post. This started things rolling with an AP story that ran in many regional papers, as well as on Comcast, MSNBC and Yahoo.

Then I got an email from Barbara Pinto — an ABC on-camera journalist — about appearing with Marilyn Pocius on "Good Morning, America." This was a riot — it was fun talking on-camera about the taste of bugs, and this was my very first sampling of the creatures. I had never had them before that evening; up until then, it was all conceptual. Like many that night, I was surprised how good, or, let's say "non-yucky" they were.

ABC local news ran a story on Thursday, May 24, which provided a little more information about the cooking process.

Then I got a call from whiskybent, a poster on LTHForum.com and producer on the Jerry Agar on WLS, 890 AM. Our interview ran last Friday, May 25 (if it doesn't sync the first time, click again).

Later that afternoon, I did an interview with Canadian Public Radio's "As It Happens." (Select Part 1; interview begins at about 18:35.)

Over the weekend, John Kass mentioned Cathy Lambrecht, my wife Carolyn Berg and me — and LTHForum.com — in the Chicago Tribune.

Then Tuesday night, "Chicago Tonight." Phil Ponce was kind enough to mention LTHForum.com, and he seemed to take the whole thing in good humor, which is, of course, how it was intended to be taken. This is no major culinary breakthrough; it's just having fun being a temporary insectivore.

Next Friday, we're expecting a visit from Nippon Television, which is sending out a crew to shoot a party at Marilyn Pocius' house. These folks from the biggest television company in Japan had some interesting questions, such as:
• By any chance do you know if there is (will be) a shelter or some sort of place (area) people can go to avoid cicadas and their noise?
• Do you know where we can find cicada protection net ( something you can wear to protect your face or neck so that cicadas won't perch)?

I feel our Asian friends may fear the cicada more than we... though perhaps we lost our fear the moment we ate them. So, how'd we do that?

Well, before you cook any food — particularly something you've never cooked before — you want to assess the food's physical characteristics: how much fat it has, how much lean meat, the presence of bones, etc.

A cicada is mostly protein with a fair amount of shell and very little fat. Now, fat is a carrier of flavor — that's why we like our meat marbled — so to up the flavor quotient in cicada, I prefer to fry it and perhaps serve with some cheese.

Before you do anything, though, you want to select the right bug. I try to snag the little guys coming right out of the ground. The youngest of any breed is usually the most tender (think veal, suckling pig, etc.), and the younger cicadas have a softer exoskeleton. Once the cicada hits a tree, it begins to transform into a larger, winged creature; to eat these, you have to clip the wings and they look a lot less appealing (I realize that many will feel this is a fine distinction).

cicada_pot.jpg

Once home, parboil the bug: I put a cup or so of cicadas in rapidly boiling water for about a minute then scoop then out and drop into an ice water bath. I notice the shell reddens slightly, just as would be the case with cicada's crustacean cousins (they're all arthropods, so if you're allergic to shellfish, do not eat cicadas).

Now, with frying, you can bread them or fry them commando style by just dropping the bug into hot fat. My wife does a fine tempura cicada. We drop the cicadas into tempura batter (just rice flour, egg and water) and fry the creatures. Carolyn rolls them with a little steamed carrot, chive, umeboshi paste, wasabi and soy (the critters need a little salt). In nori rolls, the bugs they look great and they appeal to people because the nori roll is a familiar preparation and the insect is hidden inside.

My friend Catherine Lambrecht developed two very good preparations. One is a variation of the children's favorite, "ants on a log": it's chevre, fresh goat cheese, on an endive. On top, a cicada is mounted... though not mounted in the way it had hoped to be when it emerged from the earth after 17 years (Ho! Try the veal!). The cheese provides the fatty basis for the leaner cicada.

I find that the cicada has notes of peanut butter. Consequently, we thought it'd be great with jelly. So we got a piece of celery, added some blueberry preserves we got from Genesis Growers, a local artisanal farmer, and added the bug. Incidentally, for locavores who like to eat regionally, this is the ultimate in eating locally. Indeed, this hors d'oeuvre tasted like a crunchy PB&J, with the celery providing a moist element that makes the whole thing go down easy.

So after watching "Chicago Tonight," I got a call from my proud parents. And I realized that I wasn't sure if this was not one of the saddest nights of my life. Because, you know, my flirtation with fame is based on one primitive action: I eat bugs.

 

Ron / June 1, 2007 10:02 AM

ARE YOU PEOPLE NUTS?????????????

David Hammond / June 1, 2007 10:09 AM

Insects are eaten in most parts of the world, with significant cicada consumption taking place in Mexico and Asia. Incidentally, in Asia, they probably cannot believe that we North Americans could anything so gross as cheese, which you will have a hard time finding in Japan, China, or Southeast Asia.

Tastes differ. Open your mouth and your mind will follow.

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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