For some folks, opening David Gracer's basement freezer could cause uncontrolled pants wetting. The box is crammed full of iced-over six-legged creatures: giant ants from Texas, muscular crickets from Thailand and a "very interesting" species of African grasshopper.
But Gracer doesn't view these creatures as much different from the Ben & Jerry's nestled in your own freezer. It's food, and quite delicious at that.
"It's really an unusual flavor," Gracer explains on the phone.
I learned of Gracer's passion for entomophagy, or bug eating, after the 45-year-old English instructor commented on a previous stink-bug post. The recent streak of freakish warm weather has created a stink-bug invasion in the region, and I noted that certain other cultures would welcome the opportunity to feast on the pungent insect.
But Gracer says the demand for edible stink bugs exists within our own country, as well. He runs a small business from his home in Providence, R.I., devoted to supplying adventurous eaters with food that crawls. In the course of his operations, Gracer has heard from professional chefs in New York City and other places who are rarin' to get their hands (and mouths) on the nasty-smelling insect.
"I know a couple of Mexican chefs in New York and other cities, and I have managed to sell them chapulines [grasshoppers] and jumiles [stink bugs] in the past," he says. "These people have clientele in large cities that are ready to be able to brag on Monday mornings about what they had: 'It wasn't just a cricket, it was a stink bug!'"
Think he's joking? Hardly. Gracer isn't just the owner of the Small Stock bug dispensary (motto: "It's time for livestock that's small") - he's a frequent customer. He travels around the country to participate in insect cook-offs, winning one in Richmond a few years back for a green salad sprinkled with ants, waxworms and stink bugs.
Bug eating is a relatively unstudied pastime in America. For people who want to participate, it's a bit like collecting wild mushrooms - if you're not sure it's edible, don't eat it. The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, an invasive Asian species that has become a crop destroyer in the U.S., is still "a little bit of a gray area," says Gracer. After many conversations with his fellow entomophagists about the edibility of the species, he's decided it's fine to put in your mouth. "They're a little bitter and a little herby, a cross between kale and cilantro," he says.
Gracer even shared his plan to harvest stink bugs in the mid-Atlantic. It only needs a little independent funding to get off the ground.
You wouldn't think that somebody who crunches down on bugs would be picky. But, as Gracer explains, sourcing the right insects is quite important. An aspiring bug chef can't just go around picking stink bugs off of walls and inhaling them, because they could have eaten pesticides or might be contaminated with asbestos or lead paint.
But with a trap and a bottle of liquid pheromones, you could go out into a field far away from civilization and collect bags full of organic-quality stink bugs.
"They would never have been inside a vacuum cleaner or in the dirt of house, and that would make them far more attractive to people like me," he says. "I have no doubt that a starting price of $8 a pound would be reachable."
Gracer thinks it's only a matter of time before deteriorating conditions on earth make bug-eating mandatory. So we might as well get used to having a little exoskeleton in our diet, perhaps in the form of bar snacks or milled-insect flour for use in baking.
"I enjoy beef and pork like most people, and would consider giving up ham and bacon a hardship," he says. "But I think a change is coming for our species. And easing into change as opposed to being stubborn about the environmental realities makes a lot of sense."