On the Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell credited eating healthier to being one of the keys to his and Kevin Jorgeson’s success.
Forget the normal big-wall diet of beef jerky, ramen noodles and canned peaches. Kevin and Tommy were eating fresh avocados, cucumbers, peppers and Patagonia Provisions Wild Salmon, responsibly sourced from sustainable fisheries.
Well it turns out that if they were looking for a responsible, sustainable source of protein, they might have considered eating bugs instead.
You know. … Bugs.
Squirmy little grubs.
Crunchy, crawly thoraxes with legs.
That’s at least according to Meghan Curry, a 29-year-old entomologist from El Paso, Texas, who is planning to solo Mescalito this year and, for her source of protein, eat only bugs.
Meghan reached out to me to tell me about her “BugWall” project, which aims to promote eating insects as a sustainable food source. It’s no secret that by 2050, there will be 9.6 billion people living on the planet. How we’re going to feed all of those people is a big predicament, but one thing is clear, it’s not going to be with cheeseburgers.
I love eating and cooking. I think “gluten sensitivity” is a bullshit marketing craze, and I live on a pretty well-balanced diet of caffeine, alcohol, meat, vegetables and dark chocolate. I’ve also pretty actively avoided reading books and watching documentaries that might persuade me to do the right thing and make food choices that would contribute to a more sustainable food future—for the simple reason that I love eating and don’t want to ruin a good thing. David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” is the only thing I’ve ever read that has almost convinced me to give up meat for ethical (selfless) purposes—not health (selfish) purposes.
But when I got an email this weekend from this bug-eating big-waller, I thought it was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard. I also quickly realized that this girl makes even the most diehard vegans look like a bunch of wussies, which made me respect her immensely.
I had to find out more about why she was climbing El Cap and eating bugs.
Who are you and what do you do?
I finished a master’s in entomology last year, working with endosymbiotic bacteria in spiders and left academia to promote edible insects by forming Bug Vivant llc. I also work part time right now as a climbing guide while growing my business.
What’s your climbing background?
I’ve been climbing 10 years. I grew up in a small town—Kingman, Arizona. With nothing to do that wouldn’t result in pregnancy or meth addiction, we taught ourselves how to rappel with cotton ropes, keychain carabiners and a surprisingly strong leather belts for harnesses. Eventually we figured out how to actually climb.
I’ve climbed El Cap twice before: Tangerine Trip was my first aid route 8 or 9 years ago. Also, I climbed Zodiac about 4 years ago as my first big solo. Zodiac was really challenging, I had no idea how much harder El Cap would be without a partner. I’ve also done 3 aid routes in Zion: Space Shot, Crack in the Cosmic Egg, and Ghost Dance.
My favorite place to climb is Zion, I really love doing the long free routes there. They’re huge, wild, and you almost never see anyone else climbing.
Have you always been a bug eater? Or is this a new thing?
During my master’s I participated in a student debate at a conference. We argued that entomophagy (eating bugs) would be the best tool in our quiver to feed the 9 billion people estimated to exist by 2050. We won the debate and I got really fired up about the idea of eating insects.
I’ve been incorporating bugs into my diet more consistently over the last year, now that they’re commercially available.
Tell me about your website Bug Vivant.
Researching this industry, I found loads of academic articles, basic media features, and a few blogs scattered across the web, but I found no central information hub. I created Bug Vivant to fill this gap, to be a hub for someone curious about eating bugs. Bug Vivant is a source for edible insect recipe sharing, commercial product review, general entomophagy information and discussion forums.
Edible insect production has massive global potential to improve nutrition and micro economic growth. Many developing nations have an entomophagy tradition that is being eroded as globalization spreads our negative Western attitude. Our food attitudes can, and must, change. I believe that fostering a robust edible insect industry is the best way to nourish 9 billion people by 2050. Eight months ago I founded Bug Vivant to promote edible insects in the West as more than just an academic idea or novelty, but as serious food choice.
It still sounds fucking gross to me. How do you convince people / climbers who are hesitant to introduce bugs into their diet to give it a try?
Here are my talking points:
You’re already eating bugs in your processed food as allowed by the FDA.
Baking and cooking with cricket or mealworm flour, you can try entomophagy for the first time without seeing antennae or legs.
The rest of the world has been enjoying edible insects for a long time, we’re the ones that need to catch up.
Thirty years ago you couldn’t imagine eating raw fish wrapped in seaweed—bugs are the new sushi.
They’re tasty and raised with a very high degree of quality control.
Why aren’t bugs a staple in the Western diet? And, also, where are bugs a staple?
Great question. There are lots of circulating theories as to why we’re so squeamish about edible insects in North America and Europe. One hypothesis is that because many Anglos culturally link back to a geographic location without a lot of insect diversity, the fertile crescent, we never developed the taste. Another idea is that in a hunter-gather culture, hunting back a large game mammals was the dangerous and more impressive work of men, while collecting insects was a more subtle and less exciting task of females and children.
Why are bugs a superior food group compared to what we currently eat?
They’re loaded with protein, vitamins and minerals. Though we’re still teasing out optimal production systems and exact conversion ratios (efficiency numbers vary with different reports), it’s clear that insects require way less water, feed and land to produce than larger livestock forms.
They also taste great. Edible insects offer a whole cornucopia of textures, flavors and culinary aesthetics that we’re only beginning to grasp. Western gastronomes have been missing a huge taxonomic opportunity.
What is your favorite type of bug to eat?
Best insect flavor I’ve enjoyed was a black soldier fly larvae. Cricket flour is really fun to cook with—it’s super versatile.
What kind of bug do you not like to eat?
I would eat a farm-raised cockroach, but like most Americans, it would elicit some reservation. I would never eat an insect for which I didn’t know the source—it could have been exposed to and accumulated pesticides.
Where do you get bugs? Do you just run around the woods catching them, do you farm them or can you order them online?
Here’s a quick guide / infographic I wrote up about what bugs are edible.
In the next two weeks I’ll be creating a BugWall specific menu based upon the generous donations of commercially available edible insect products like energy bars made with cricket flour, cricket granola, and CFu which is a mealworm-flour-based tofu used to make prepackaged meals like chili.
I’m also going to start experimenting with some longer shelf-life recipes for foods like cricket leather or cricket flour naan. All BugWall recipes will also be posted to my site.
Thanks for the info! When are you going to climb El Cap, and how can we follow your ascent through social media?
I’ll be starting around June 1st, though the exact start date is of course weather dependent. I’m bringing a solar panel to charge my phone. I’ll share details of the climb, six-legged snacks, and photos live/daily via: bugvivant.com and on Twitter: #BugWall and @BugVivant.
Update: Meghan sustained an unexpected death in her family and is putting off her Bug Wall project until later this summer …