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'Survivor' contestants are among few Americans bold enough to eat bugs

Thursday, March 15, 2001

By Kathleen Ganster

If you have been bitten by the "Survivor" bug, you saw hometown favorite Amber Brkich of Brighton Township in Beaver chomp down on a bug a few weeks ago in the TV show's immunity challenge.

How safe is it to eat a bug? Pretty safe, according to Robert Davidson, collection manager for the insect collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Oakland.

"Many cultures eat bugs all of the time. Some are harmful but a lot of bugs are full of fat and protein," said Davidson, who has a master's degree in zoology.

Viewers should assume that the producers of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" chose bugs that wouldn't be harmful to the contestants. (The show resumes at 8 p.m. on Thursday nights beginning March 29 on CBS.)

Even though bugs may not be dangerous, most of us cringe at the mere thought of eating a grasshopper or a cricket. Davidson said, however, that America is one of the few cultures that doesn't enjoy a cricket appetizer or grasshopper lunch. In fact, when Davidson was in Africa a few years ago, bug eating was commonplace.

"The kids would sit around and wait for a rainstorm because afterwards, the termites would just pour out of the holes in the ground," he recalled. "The kids would pick them up, pick off the wings, and pop them down like peanuts."

Though the kids would munch away, it wasn't something Davidson ever developed a taste for. "I would eat them in a social situation when it would have been rude not to eat them. Some are like chewing plastic, and some have a spicy backbite."

Interviewed by e-mail, the author of "The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, 1998), David George Gordon, said: "When it comes to bug-eating, we're the oddballs for not eating bugs. Just about every culture except those of Europe, and by extensions, the U.S. and Canada, eat some form of insect or spider."

They aren't hard to find. "Go to Oaxaca, Mexico, some time and you can order grasshopper tacos in the marketplace. In Mexico City, you can buy ant eggs fried in butter," said Gordon. "In Thailand, it's roasted grasshoppers and giant water bugs."

Gordon, who lives in a small town north of Seattle, wrote his cookbook because he wanted to increase awareness about entomophagy -- the scientific term for bug eating. "I wanted to interest people in one aspect of what is called cultural entomology -- how people and insects interact," Gordon said.

Gordon eats bugs himself. "I don't start each day with a bowl of crispy crickets, but I do eat bugs a lot. Mostly at bug banquets in my home and at the public programs I give at museums and science centers throughout the U.S."

If the urge to eat a bug strikes, be particular about the bugs you pick up. "If you don't know what you are doing, you could choose a bug full of toxin," Davidson warned. "There are certain spiders or adult wasps that could be very dangerous. But you could sterilize and fry up some Japanese beetle larvae."

Of course, you also don't know what the bug has eaten. Said Kathy Burkholder, entomologist, educator and owner of Kathy's Critters and realcooltoys.com: "Many insects eat poisonous plants without any harm to themselves, but they may be of some harm to a predator."

Perhaps more dangerous than the toxins from the bugs are the chemicals and pesticides that may be on the plants the bugs have been living on or near. "You should probably be hesitant in picking up an insect off the street and eating it because of the possibilities of insecticides or other pollutants in or on the animals. In a modern city, these possibilities would be more hazardous to his health," Burkholder said in a telephone interview.

Davidson agreed. "You don't want to eat a bug off a tomato that you have just dusted with insecticide."

Another danger is allergies. "If you are allergic to shrimp, it might not be a good idea to eat insects," said Burkholder.

What about taste? "You should know your bugs. You may not want to take a chance on eating a nasty tasting ladybug or monarch butterfly," Burkholder said. "And like many foods, cooking usually adds a better texture and taste."

Besides crunch, bugs can also add nutrition to your diet. "Obviously, different insects will have different nutritional values. Compared to beef or fish, many insects have comparable but slightly lesser amounts of protein, more carbohydrates, much less fat and more iron -- not to mention plenty of other minerals and vitamins, such as copper, zinc, thiamin and riboflavin," said Burkholder.

Kathleen Ganster is a Hampton free-lance writer who kitchen tested these recipes. She does not eat bugs.

For more information about eating bugs and recipes, check out Gordon's "Eat-A-Bug Cookbook" or www.olympus.net/dggordon. Burkholder carries candy made out of real bugs, through her toy company, www.realcooltoys.com.

Related Recipes:

Chocolate Cricket Torte
Ants on a Log

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