Eric Bescak

Eric Bescak is a local entrepreneur who wants to start an edible bug business (or two) in Madison. "We already have the agricultural infrastructure," he said. "And there’s a great food cart scene here." 

Mike DeVries

We in the U.S. generally ignore a healthy, sustainable protein that 80 percent of the rest of the world eats with pleasure.

That's something "insectivores," or entomophagists, like Eric Bescak hope to change.

Bescak, 37, an MBA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is among a growing number of people who see waxworms, crickets, locusts and beetles as an important part of the future of food.

Getting folks to equate the protein in a waxworm with protein in a chicken is a serious, if worthy, challenge. In a 2011 story in the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote that while "most of the world eats bugs," Americans "tend to associate insects with filth, death and decay."

But though it may seem bizarre to a burger-and brat-centric culture, edible bugs are efficient to raise, easy to cook and commonplace in cultures from Thailand to Mexico.

"Lots of people are excited about the potential of edible insects," said Alexander McCall in an Aug. 15 story on National Public Radio.

"A 2013 report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization noted that insects like crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers are nutritional powerhouses, high in protein, fat and the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which are scarce in cereal proteins like soy."

They're also, as Bescak discovered in one of his marketing classes, ripe for rebranding.

"One might argue that edible insects such as crickets and grasshoppers are like tiny land-lobsters and field-crabs," wrote Silvia Killingsworth in a later New Yorker piece from August 2013. "Enticing people into eating crickets may involve rendering them unrecognizable, thus avoiding the 'ick factor.'"

Bescak is a budding food entrepreneur who has been perfecting his pitch at the local Edible Startup Summit and the Future Food Salon in Montreal. But before he could sing with the cicadas, he had to get over his own squeamishness.

For months he worked on a bug-friendly business plan for a kid-friendly food cart and locally ground cricket flour, but "like most people, I was not yet eating bugs in any significant way," Bescak wrote in a follow-up email to this interview.

"I needed to overcome my own aversion to eating bugs," he said. "So I started blogging about the reasons to eat bugs to help persuade myself."

This not only made the idea "more palatable," it connected Bescak with people like Daniella Martin, the author of "Edible," and Robert Nathan Allen in Austin, leader of Little Herds, a nonprofit working to educate the public about bug-eating.

"Now, I'm feeling a little more ambitious," Bescak wrote in a recent post about a successful batch of waxworm tacos. 

The Cap Times: How did you first hit upon the idea of edible insects as a business opportunity?

Eric Bescak: I read a New Yorker article in 2011, the Dana Goodyear article ... I just thought it was a great idea. There are so many good reasons to eat bugs. But in the United States we don't do it, it's not a part of our (culture). We don't have a taste for it, at least not to eat bugs consciously.

Of course, we do eat bugs in a lot of different ways: the bugs that are allowed in our processed food; honey is bee vomit; Campari is made from insect shells.

Lobsters are arthropods — people call them bugs. They're bottom feeders. You think of grasshoppers, they're also arthropods, but outside eating grass.

Taste is a cultural construction and these constructs can change. That's why it was just always an interesting marketing problem to me. Everything else makes sense, but how do you get people to consciously eat bugs?

Where do you get crickets from?

Right now, the same place you'd get crickets for your lizard.

A pet store?

Yeah. When I first decided to do this I had to figure (it) out, because I'd never bought any crickets or any live bait for animals.

I called ahead (to the west side PetSmart). I asked if they had these waxworms, and I'm trying to find the scientific name because I don't know how many varieties of waxworms there are. I had no idea what I was getting into. He said "Yes," and I asked if they were this specific variety.

He said, "I don't know, what do you want them for?"

I couldn't tell him I was going to eat them. So I made up something — "It's for my iguana." And he was like, "Oh, you shouldn't feed your iguana waxworms" ... and he was telling me about how he'd worked with lizards for 18 years, and how I should come in and we should talk.

So I went to the PetSmart on the east side. You can get crickets, superworms, waxworms.

Are they food grade, though?

There are food startups like this one in Youngstown (Ohio; Big Cricket Farms), where you'll be able to order them and they'll be certified organic. There would be the opportunity to get them, but right now it's live bait distributors, or mail order, we can get them in bulk. 

Do you know how the USDA determines "food grade" crickets?

I've been working with WWBIC (a business education and development nonprofit), asking the Department of Health — if I was going to do a business, I'd want to go above and beyond any regulations about cleanliness, since this is a new industry.

As long as the intention is for human consumption and it's been cleaned (and processed) in a commercial food kitchen like the FEED Kitchens, and it's cooked — you're good to go.

Regulation is coming because there's all these food startups happening. There's nothing specific in the FDA yet. 

It sounds like edible bug businesses are popping up all over the country. 

Mostly on the coasts. There's a food cart called Don Bugito in San Francisco, they call it a "Prehispanic" snackeria, with the idea that this is what the Aztecs ate.  

That's one way to go; find cultures that already have bugs and do a food cart version of those bugs. There's Chapul, they're the first insect bar, and these guys (Exo) are new.

They're going after the Paleo crowd, people who work out, the CrossFit community.

You said earlier that there are "so many good reasons" to eat bugs. Can you explain some?

Definitely environmental and nutritional reasons.

You start with feed conversion rates — given how much feed, how much protein is ultimately produced? (According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "crickets are twice as efficient in converting feed to meat as chicken, at least four times more efficient than pigs, and 12 times more efficient than cattle.")

80 percent of our agriculture is devoted to livestock ... and we're looking at population growth of 30 percent globally in the next 35 years. We'd have to double our food production, and we can't do that with the few protein sources we do eat.

Insects are seen as a way to feed the world's population, to diversify our food sources when resources are going to be increasingly limited. 

So insects are healthy and better for the earth. But what do they taste like?

The superworms ... have like a soft nuttiness, and just a little bit like a shrimp, very slight. As far as the crickets, they take on other flavors ... 

Like tofu?

Yeah. You cook them up in oil and seasoning and they take that flavor.

They're crunchy. You can get wings stuck in your teeth.

I guess I get popcorn kernels in my teeth. I can handle that. But texturally — are the worms slimy?

No. (Waxworms) come in wood shavings. You rinse them off, throw them in the freezer, let 'em freeze. As far as tempura, they ... take on the crunch when you fry them but the interior is pretty soft.

Frankly in the tempura, some of (the worms) can explode. 

Have you thought about working with some local chefs to come up with insect-based dishes?

I have a foodie inclination, but I'm not professional grade.

You could do a bug dinner.

Or host dinners through something like FEASTLY — you come up with a menu, you put it online. People buy tickets for it and come over to your house, and you cook the meal. That would be another way to test this.

Right now I'm just having parties and having friends over, just trying recipes out. What's going to work in a food cart — it's got to be some kind of finger food.

The challenge is coming up with an edible insect product that's not just going to get this "one and done" curious person. I think a lot of people are open to doing it, but it's getting them to come back and make this a part of their diet. 

I'm an omnivore. I'd want to know what gap this would fill in my normal diet.

You minimize risk with diversification. People aren't replacing their steak with grub steak. But having that additional item on the menu, you get there — you get people to start seeing bugs as a viable alternative. 

You said you tested some things on your friends. What were the most popular?

Cricket leather (cranberry apple fruit leather with flour made from roasted, ground crickets) did well. Tacos went well — that was just kind of fried up waxworms, sprinkled on tortillas with guacamole and salsa.

The (superworm) tempura, I thought that was going to be the toughest sell. But that was also served later, so some drinking had happened.

The crickets (served on fresh figs with goat cheese), that was a tough sell. One guy said, "You're lucky I love goat cheese."

Definitely from a marketability standpoint, the masking approach is probably the best bet. But I like the idea of confronting people with the idea that these are bugs, getting them to make the association that this is food, gain that acceptance. You don't want to trick your customers.

Some people will be quicker to take this up and others won't. 

Why do you think edible bugs could work in Madison?

There's a lot of good reasons. We already have the agricultural infrastructure, the expertise is right here. You have a great foodie culture in Madison.

We have a community of people who really think about sustainability and are really conscious of environmental issues. And there's a great food cart scene here.

You could reach a lot of audiences before a full-blown restaurant, which may be down the line.

When you think about introducing people to something they've never eaten before, are some insects easier than others? Are there "starter" bugs?

Crickets are the way to go. For this area, they're the easiest to raise. The worms, it's more of a meaty option, which is also a good way to start.

When I'm thinking about the food cart, I'm also thinking about where to get the product. Cricket flour ... I bought a 20 ounce bag for $20.

You're still testing your ideas for dishes. 

Yeah. Are people willing to eat a straight up cricket, or does it need to be masked in some way? Where the food cart is going for me — and it's still up in the air — is to create edible bug versions of childhood snacks or concepts.

So like the cricket fruit roll up, or actual real crickets on a log, or "bee"-L-Ts, like with bees, lettuce and tomato.

The idea is to appeal to early adopters, and children are definitely one. Also the Paleo crowd and foodies. If I end up moving forward with it next summer ... that's what I'm playing around with. 

Will you raise your own ingredients?

I'm actually starting to do my own farming in my girlfriend's garage. She's very supportive.

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.