Eating Bugs: Almost as Trendy as Organ Meat

Many food trends start out as low-brow afterthoughts--or even garbage

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In this week's New Yorker, Dana Goodyear makes an in-depth case for insects as the next trendy food item. Historically considered exotic (read: gross) in the United States, she points out how the rest of the world has been dining on bugs for thousands of years. Now, U.S. chefs have finally caught up, getting over their own hangups and the perceived "ew-factor" of their customers and presenting a whole new slew of insect-heavy dishes.

Once a staple on “Fear Factor,” they were featured on “Top Chef Masters” this season. At John Rivera Sedlar’s ambitious Latin restaurant Rivera, in Los Angeles, the cocktail list features the Donaji, a fourteen-dollar drink named after a Zapotec princess, which is made with artisanal Oaxacan mescal and house-made grasshopper salt. Bricia Lopez supplies the bugs for Sedlar’s drinks; at Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan restaurant that her parents opened in Los Angeles in 1994, she serves a scrumptious plate of chapulines a la Mexicana—grasshoppers sautéed with onions, jalapeños, and tomatoes.

Grub Street wasn't convinced. "We've had our share of grasshopper tacos, but we can't say it's a trend we've seen exploding onto the scene." If past food trends are any indication, however, it certainly could be. In fact, it frequently seems like the ingredients that become cutting-edge staples -- or at least that make the headlines in food publications and The New York Times style section -- started life as cheap, cheasy, low-brow afterthoughts, or in some cases actual garbage. A few examples, below.

  • Offal: The modern trend of ordering offal in a high-end restaurant can be traced directly back to British chef Fergus Henderson's book The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, published in Britain in 1999 and the United States in 2004. Since then, chefs like San Francisco's Chris Cosentino have been serving things like pasta with Blood corzetti, trotters, foie gras & green strawberries, which sells at Incanto for $17. And Next Iron Chef Nate Appleman, brought his offal-heavy cooking from San Francisco to New York. He's at Chipotle now
  • Pork Bellies / Bacon: Apparently a joke that refused to die, foodies keep taking bacon seriously as something more significant than an excellent garnish for a club sandwich. Yum Sugar named bacon its trendiest ingredient for 2006, and in a 2003 New York Times article, Julia Reed asserted low-grade foodstuffs (like deep fried Snickers) "can't be identified as a trend until it turns up on a plate in a place where they also have tablecloths and silverware." Such as, she wrote, "the pork belly that graces every menu I pick up." Then you have almost totally non-ironic bacon cocktails, which were big in 2008.
  • Chilean Sea Bass: Once known as the Patagonian toothfish, mariners, for years, couldn't give this stuff away. But "after a name change to the menu-friendly 'Chilean sea bass,' the catch became a staple at upscale restaurants," Time wrote in 2002. Now it's endangered and, since a boycott in 2002, no longer cool.
  • Charcuterie: The primarily European tradition of artisinal cured meats is a long one, but things like bologna and salami, while great for sandwiches, never caught on among trend-setters in the United States until the last few years. That's when places like Brooklyn's Prime Meats brought the traditionally workaday charcuterie to the pages of The New York Times with style pieces like this one on "Brooklyn's New Culinary Movement."
  • Pickles: Just last week The New York Times ran an op-ed all about pickles as a symbol of Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the century. "No immigrant food was more reviled than the garlicky, vinegary pickle," Jane Ziegelman wrote. But these days, pickles have assumed a place in the above-mentioned trend pieces. At the trendy but poorly organized Tasting Pavilion at San Francisco's Slow Food Nation in 2008, the pickle booth commanded one of the longest lines.
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