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In Chapulines We Trust

Miscelanea* is a cozy location to find Mexican products and an elevated street-style kitchen. Talking to the staff members in Spanish as I usually do while I order a torta, I noticed a lady, non-staff, stacking cans on one of the shelves. Chapulines. “Hello, I am Virydiana,” she introduced herself, “one of the founders of Merci Mercado. Have you tried my grasshoppers?”

Virydiana Velarde is one of the four founders of Merci Mercado, a business that sells dry and seasoned grasshoppers and worms, as well as these insects’ salt and grasshopper powder. She opened a can and stretched out her hand, “here, try them!” Though I grew up in Mexico and saw family members eat insects numerous times, I had never eaten an insect voluntarily before.

The very first time I tried chapulines was at a friend’s kitchen in New York’s West Village. “Look what I bought!” Antonio exclaimed. “I didn’t think I’d find these!” From his bag of Queens-bought Mexican treats, he pulled out a small, brandless and probably reused Ziploc bag filled with dried, chile-and-lime seasoned grasshoppers. Instinctively, I stayed quiet. He opened the bag, put his hand in and tossed a couple bugs into his mouth. His face twitched. “They’re aguados.” I almost gagged.

The last thing I picture bugs to be are aguados. There’s no accurate translation for it in English; it’s kind of a humid, soft, mushy, a mostly stale state. Though I did not eat insects when I lived in Mexico, I know they are preferable when they are crunchy and well dried. I suggested we put them on a pan with a little lime juice and Tajín for them to recover their crunch. “Now that we did what you said, you’d better try them,” said Antonio.

And I did. Writhing half of the time, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. One of my grandfathers used to love them and he’d order guacamole with gusanos de maguey, or mezcal worms as they’re known in English. You could find an array of ants and other bugs in marketplaces in Oaxaca and Veracruz, as if they were any other “regular” product.

Six days after my not-so-terrible experience with grasshoppers, I found myself standing in front of Velarde in the East Village. Why am I eating bugs in Manhattan when I never ate them in Mexico? I braced myself for the second time and took the insect off Velarde’s hand. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Velarde’s grasshoppers. They had no fishy aftertaste, were perfectly crisp and the three different seasonings she sells – natural, adobo, or chipotle – had a delightful smokiness to them, just like the one you feel after a sip of mezcal and a bite of an orange slice, but much dryer, sans the boozy kick.

Edible insects are a dietary staple in some areas of Mexico and other countries around the world, but why did it take me so long to find a liking in insects? Why did I have to opt-into eating them in Manhattan and not in my home country where they can be found almost nation-wide? At least two-billion people practice entomophagy – the practice of eating bugs – regularly, reported the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Have the other five-billion become interested all of a sudden?

In recent years, conversation about the benefits of farming insects for eating has risen. Compared to other sources of protein, most bugs are 100 percent edible, whereas a cow is 40 percent, reported Charlotte Payne, a PhD candidate in the Department to Zoology at the University of Cambridge for the BBC. In the same article, Payne reported that, compared to the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by pigs, mealworms produce only between one and ten percent of the pigs’ production.

“At events, many people don’t dare to try them,” said Velarde about brunches and events where Merci Mercado has participated when serving their products. “But when we explain what it is, the type of insect and the sustainable aspects, then they’re encouraged to try them.” After working for the Mexican Embassy in Washington DC for the promotion of agricultural and food exports, Velarde worked for about seven years to get the permits to import and sell insects. After three years of active product selling, her co-founding team has seen a 100 percent increase in yearly sales.

Insects should be eaten “because you want to,” wrote Payne via email. Her work focuses on potential environmental, health and socioeconomic impacts of an increased demand for edible insects. “Taste, health, convenience, access, price, lowering your carbon footprint,” can be reasons for insect consumption, shared Payne.

“There is a steady increase in the availability of insects as food due to farming initiatives,” wrote Payne. As of 2018, a survey conducted by Oxford University Press showed that 34 percent of the surveyed consumers in the United States would definitely eat insects and 38 percent probably would eat them. Payne stated that there is currently a demand for edible insects that “outstrips supply,” and she and her team are seeing legislative changes that could potentially make it easier for people to farm and sell insects as food. If the trends seen today continue, there could be a rise in edible insect availability, a drop in prices, and optimized farming systems.

Arguably, bugs are small. Their individual size does not compare to that of livestock. But can they become a source of protein that supplements other environment-harming foods? While Swiss supermarkets and Finnish farmers are investing in the edible insect business, Juan Manuel Gutiérrez – Velarde’s business partner and husband – argues that farm-raised insects, particularly grasshoppers, don’t have the same taste, texture, and consistency as wild-grown grasshoppers.

Humans have not been able to “domesticate a product in flavor and quality as it can be found in the wild,” said Gutiérrez. Velarde and her husband said their insects are harvested by small to medium producers in Oaxaca, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Hidalgo in Mexico where fields are dedicated to the wild harvest of grasshoppers. They’re keen on only selling a certain size of grasshopper, when in the insects’ life cycle, they have grown, reproduced and laid eggs, and continue their adult lives in order to maintain the species’ natural reproductive balance.

“Production is a moral and ethical problem,” said Gutiérrez. Though a United Nations report detailed bugs could be future prospects for food security and sustainability in 2013, is it responsible and truly effective to mass-produce edible insects because this “new food” hype?

Insects “have the flavor of the land in which they grow,” said Velarde, who joked to be an “insectarian,” a vegetarian with a side of insects (and an occasional portion of fish). Interested in doing something for her daughter and future generations, Velarde feels “proud to share a piece of Mexico that’s ancestral.”

Seems like terroir goes beyond escargots and wines. Mezcal worms live in the roots of the maguey, the plant from which mezcal is made, and grasshoppers live in similar terrains. Though I personally would not eat worms alive – as Nicole Kidman eats “micro-livestock” – I’d surely try to incorporate other sources of less-fatty protein into my diet, such as dried grasshoppers. But as Payne said, one has to do it because they want to. I lived I Mexico for almost 20 years and never had the initiative to reach out and grab a grasshopper from the table. It wasn't until I had an assignment – and wanted (needed) to – that I took the leap and jumped at the opportunity.

Still revolted by the idea of insect-related foods? Then you might as well stop eating honey, because bees spit that up.

For the full photo story, click here!

* = Since the reporting of this story, Miscelanea NY has permanently closed its doors as of June 16, 2019.

Merci Mercado is effectively in business.

(July 2019)

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