I ate its coxa. I ate its labrum. I ate its compound eye. But I could not eat its broken little legs.
Crunchy and seasoned with chipotle, ancho and chili peppers, Mexican spiced grasshoppers are as addictive as beer nuts. But there was something about the legs—legs so powerful they can propel their owner 20 times the length of his body—lying in the bottom of a bowl like open safety pins ... well, it just felt wrong.
To celebrate Summer Solstice last week, the Museum of Life and Science in Durham hosted Invertivoria: A Culinary Experience, featuring foods that are invertebrates, or in layman's terms, spineless—grasshoppers, mealworms, silkworms, waxworms, conch, jellyfish—all artfully prepared by Chef Rodney Lloyd in salads and soups and stir-frys and desserts.
Thirty-four people paid $30 each for the privilege, and, seated randomly, my seven dining companions and I reassured ourselves by remarking that people in other countries regularly eat this kind of food. (We did not discuss the life expectancy of these people, as it would have been rude.)
To kill time, we popped grasshoppers ("If I had my eyes closed I'd think it was a potato chip," one diner said.) and marveled at the table centerpiece. A glass vase contained giant green caterpillars the length and girth of small bratwursts. Thankfully, they were very much alive and not on the menu. (If they escape the grill, some day they will be beautiful moths.)
The conch soup arrived. Now liberated from the safety of its large, white shell, the conch bobbed in a spicy coconut broth dotted with local sweet potatoes and roasted peanuts. The broth packed heat, like the ocean temperature in the year 2020. It was extraordinary. However, by its nature, conch is rubbery and gray, like a tire in an urban stream.
A few more grasshoppers to cleanse the palate. More water, please. Yes, I would love more wine.
Topped with broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas and more grasshoppers, the jellyfish and seaweed salad had a tangy, vinegary kick to it. There's not much to a jellyfish; it resembles a sliced mushroom. I couldn't identify its taste, but it did add a pleasantly chewy texture that contrasted with the crunch of the seaweed, the vegetables and, of course, the grasshoppers.
The meal then turned serious. "Silkworm is the protein," our server cheerily proclaimed, as if she were delivering our meds at a hospital.
In front of us appeared silkworm lettuce wraps with roasted peanuts, green onion, Asian rice noodles, Bibb lettuce and oyster mushrooms, with a splash of sriracha sauce. The black-and-white striped worms ... they looked so ... tired.
Were they dead? If not, would they start weaving a scarf in my stomach?
"I may have met my match," said one woman. She once had seen a live silkworm at a Gotta Be NC event at the state fairgrounds. "They were plumper."
Next to me sat an entomologist from the USDA who specializes in honeybees. Even though it was hot outside, he was sweating more than the temperatures warranted. He warily eyed the silkworm wrap. He looked unwell.
"I'm more afraid of this than I was jumping out of an airplane," he said.
I folded my wrap and ate it in three bites. As I wove through the complex salty and tangy flavors, I felt like I had been transported to an upscale Thai restaurant. As worms go, silkworms don't taste bad, but there is a textural hurdle—a squish factor—to overcome.
Could I have just a tad more wine? Thank you.
Worms must be filling because I was running out of room. But I still had to tackle the main course: shrimp grits and Asian rice with mealworms.
"My mealworms are still moving," the entomologist said.
"It's just a reaction," another man assured him.
I poked at a worm that appeared to be relaxing on the rice bed. I, too, thought it moved.
"These are dead, right?" I asked the server.
"Oh yes, they're very well cooked," she replied, laughing. Laughing in a way that made me not believe her.
I chowed down on the grits and kept an eye on the worms. They stayed put. I ate two bites. They tasted nutty, but I was done.
A woman pulled out her smartphone. "The nutritional value of mealworms is 27 percent fat and 50 percent protein per 100 grams," she announced.
(One hundred grams is about the weight of a king-sized chocolate bar.)
Twenty-seven percent: Who knew you could get fat on worms? I'll take the chocolate bar.
Just a little more wine, please, about half a glass.
The finale: A tart made with North Carolina peaches, waxworms and whipped cream. The peaches—delicious. The tart pastry—amazing. The waxworms? Well, at least I couldn't see their legs.
Chef Rodney Lloyd: "It's the first time I've cooked insects."
As a chef, you learn to work with what you have. When his supplier left the country, Rodney Lloyd couldn't find tarantulas or robber crabs or katydids. But he could get mealworms, grasshoppers and jellyfish. Those invertebrates, plus silkworms, conch and waxworms, highlighted the six-course Invertivoria dinner at the Museum of Life and Science.
Lloyd, the executive catering director for Sprouts cafe at the museum, prepared the dinner by tapping into Thai and South Pacific traditions, where people often eat insects and worms. He drew from North Carolina bounty as well, including peaches, sweet potatoes and Bibb lettuce.
"I've cooked a lot of exotic animals, but it's the first time I've cooked insects," said Lloyd, his long, dark dreadlocks contained in a bandanna.
The challenges were many. For the broth that accompanied the conch, Lloyd had the ingredients but no instructions on the amounts and proportions. So he let his instincts guide him, basing it on Massaman curry, a Thai dish that is Muslim in origin.
"I got it right the first time," he said, smiling.
Jellyfish is intensely salty, practically "inedible," Lloyd explained, until the brine is blanched and boiled out of it. Sliced, it was mixed into a seaweed salad. Infused with a mandarin vinaigrette, the salad also featured fresh, North Carolina cauliflower, broccoli and snow peas—veggies that grasshoppers, which were also sprinkled on top, like to eat.
Influenced by Julia Child's French cooking, Lloyd trained to be a chef at Alamance Community College. "They taught me to be true to the food and the flavors," said Lloyd, who is also the executive caterer at The Original Q Shack.
Mealworms taste nutty. Grasshoppers have a pleasant crunch. And silkworms are meaty.
"It was a beautiful creature," Lloyd said of the silkworms.
He cooked them delicately so they would retain their shape in the lettuce wrap: "Who wants to eat smashed worms?"
Plating is its own art, and at Invertivoria, the presentation boldly declared what diners were about to eat.
"Why hide the bugs?" Lloyd said. "That was the whole purpose of the meal."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Get a backbone."