--5 Snaps! You MUST go!
Would you eat a bug? I am not talking about being at the college kegger and eating a cockroach on a dare or eating the worm in a bottle of mezcal at Cinco de Mayo. I’m talking about expanding your culinary horizons while considering the sustainability of food and overcoming your Western fear of insects as meals. The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg hosted BugsGiving: A Dining Experience with Chef Joseph Yoon, an event promoting a 10 course tasting menu with edible insects featured in the ingredients. Yoon, the executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, tours the country raising awareness and appreciation of ento-cuisine (insects as food).
Chef Joseph Yoon, executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, shares his creation The Moral of the Story- a dish of chocolate bark, berries, rice crisps, black ants, toasted super worms created in homage to artist Jennifer Angus. Her current exhibit at the MFA, The Grasshopper and the Ants and Other Stories, uses insects as a unique medium.
I didn’t go just because I want to tell folks I ate bugs for dinner (although that may up my foodie cred a little). I went because I was curious. I went because I hear about more and more problems with sustainability in the food chain and before I can advocate for change I must like it myself. Also, I must admit, photographing bugs in or on food sounded like an outstanding opportunity!
The night starts with an assortment of complementary insect inspired cocktails. Briana Lopez, an award winning mixmaster at Room 901 in St Pete, concocts beverages with names like Ento Doubt About It- Sipsmith gin, mixed with honey, ginger, pollen, and black ants. Hop to It- cricket infused gin with lime soda and tonic and Late Harvest -black ants infused gin with orange zest, lemon zest, soda, and tonic are also on the menu. The first drink is complimentary, and wow is it good!
Oddly, the MFA lobby is set up with a mix of high tops with no chairs, and other tables with seats. There's not enough room for all guests to be seated for the three hour event. After cocktail hour, food from the printed tasting menu is handed out by servers on trays hors d'oeuvres style. As a new tray of food comes out of the kitchen, servers get surrounded by patrons trying to be the first to get to the dish. Many times the tray is picked clean with nothing left to serve to folks sitting at tables. There are to be 10 tasting items. We only get seven.
On the brighter side, we luck out because our table mate is Ellen Thoms, an entomologist. Not only does she offer expertise on different types of insects, she helps us understand how they might be used. A lot of her knowledge has to do with termites, one of tonight's dishes.
In some dishes the insects are very evident, being sprinkled on top or otherwise omnipresent in the mix. With other dishes the insects are ground up and used as an ingredient. For the most part the bug flavor isn't all that notable. At most, the insects add some nuanced spiciness or sass.
The pastry is light, fluffy and hollow. The description on the tasting menu only says that the dish is made with crickets. Diners don't know what that means until they bite in. I was thinking there might be a cricket tucked inside. Nope, just cricket powder. The taste did not disappoint. It's a sweet cheesy peppery bite and I could swear I got a hint of cinnamon.
City House is a dish with Vespula Flaviceps (wasps), honey, bee pollen, tofu, yuzu-soy, matcha green tea. It is the one dish that is slightly distasteful. The wasps are bitter, slightly detracting from the sweet and salty goodness from the rest of plate. I would wager that the nutritional value is high but there's no way for patrons to know that tonight.
Yoon's Not So Deadly Sin dish with termites, black beans, rice, aïoli with cricket powder, green goddess is a hit. That aioli just kicks the rest of this tasty dish up a few notches. While the menu says this dish is made with termites, it took the entomologist sitting with us to point out it was just the termite heads. Those are some big bugs! Salty and crunchy....
Yep, large termite heads. Before you eek out, try 'em. Like so many of tonight's culinary creatures, there's not much flavor, but plenty of texture. I wonder to myself about how practical this dish might be. Think of how labor-intensive it would be to pick the heads off of the hundreds of termites served tonight!
There is nothing squishy or squirmy. For those readers who conjure up visions of icky bugs, there are no cockroaches or house flies. This is fine cuisine. It's clear that dishes are well thought out and both ingredients and presentation are top notch. It leaves me wanting more. With some dishes I take the insects off and taste them individually. Frankly, they are good. The problem is they are so sparsely used in some plates that I can't get a good understanding of taste because other ingredients dominate. Don't get me wrong. The food is excellent. The black beans and rice in the Not so Deadly Sin is kickin'. The chocolate bark featured in the Moral of the Story is worthy of second and third helpings. But how do the bugs alone taste?
I want to try a meal with bugs as the main event, not just a flavor-adder or visual aid. I want to be able to say with authority, "That tastes a lot like grub worms"?
If I were to have another opportunity for a tasting like this, I would also like there to be nutritional information. If I'm going to replace some of my diet with ento-cuisine, I'd like to know the nutritional benefit. I am all but positive many of these insects are high in protein and other beneficial ingredients, but no information verifies that tonight .
While you may have missed tonight's cuisine, don't miss the exhibit. The Grasshopper and the Ant, and other stories is brilliantly displayed at the MFA. Jennifer Angus (b. 1961) incorporates large brightly colored insects in complex patterns inspired by Victorian wallpaper. The exhibit also features several large glass cases filled with insect inspired scenes that are astonishing. Even if you are a little squeamish, you must see this beautiful exhibit. Insects are such an extremely unique medium. The over 5000 bugs are humanely sourced.
As a nation we are behind. According to the promo for this event, 80 percent of the rest of the world view insects as food, not pests. With ongoing concerns about our climate and sustainability it's time to consider the alternatives. Tonight's event is evidence that bugs can be part of the answer. As a culture we just have to get past the ew!
‘The Grasshopper and the Ant’ and Other Stories exhibit runs through January 5, 2020 at the Museum of Fine Arts
Chip Weiner is a Tampa food blogger and an award winning freelance photographer specializing in portraiture, food photography and photojournalism . He has been a photography instructor for over 10 years and teaches Tampa photography classes throughout the year. Have a suggestion for a food event or restaurant? Contact him here
For information on photography classes and workshops, feel free to call me or look under the Tampa Photography Classes section of my website. Photo 101 is by far the most popular! I also give private individual lessons on camera operation and making better photographs and would love to work with you one on one to make you a better photographer. Photography instruction gift certificates are also available. They make great gifts for the photo enthusiast in your life. Let's talk about what you need! 813-786-7780. See you in class!
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