NEW YORK – Something happened when Kisha Moorehead peered into the bowl of live worms.
She was midway through a five-course Mexican feast at the Brooklyn Kitchen on Saturday night, a meal that was engineered to introduce New Yorkers to the succulent wonders of edible insects. Throughout the first couple of courses (yucca frites dotted with mealworms, a smoked corn custard sprinkled with crispy moth larvae), Moorehead’s response had been muted. Earlier that evening, in fact, out on the sidewalk, she and her date, Harold Bradley, had considered fleeing the event altogether, even though they’d spent $85 each.
"We kept asking ourselves: ‘Are you ready? Do you want to turn back?"’ Bradley said.
But they stayed, and at some point during dinner a bowl of squirming wax moth larvae was passed around. Moorehead, 38, who most days can be found driving the morning G train, dived in.
"They’re moving," she said. "Oh, I want to try that. Oh! Oh!"
Suddenly almost trembling with excitement, she stuck her fingers into the bowl, grabbed one of the pale yellow worms, popped it into her mouth and munched down. She closed her eyes. She seemed to swoon.
Moorehead, who has such a potent phobia about the animal kingdom that she refuses even to pet dogs and cats – well, after having ingested that worm, it was clear that she had crossed a threshold. She beamed like someone who had just walked barefoot over hot coals.
"I’m so glad I did it," she said. "Because that’s why I came here. I overcame something. If I can do this, I can do anything."
Phil Ross, the San Francisco-based chef and artist who put together this and other insect smorgasbords, said he sees that kind of reaction all the time.
"People barely need help over the hump," he said. "As soon as they taste them and they realize that the flavor is actually really good, all the other stuff just goes out the window very fast, and a whole lot of other things start entering. Transgression of one taboo leads to all kinds of other possibilities."
Ross is wiry and intense and comes across like a 44-year-old version of Ferris Bueller – if "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" had been directed by, say, David Lynch. (Ross describes himself as the kind of guy who "gets a pizza with cockroaches on it – intentionally.") He raises many of the worms in his San Francisco apartment.
His girlfriend, artist Monica Martinez, builds miniature Bauhaus-style cottages and apartment complexes, and the bugs live rent-free. (These whimsical structures are on display until Oct. 15 at the EyeLevel BQE exhibition space, right around the corner from the Brooklyn Kitchen.)
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"I have my month’s meat growing in my office," Ross said. "It’s taking up almost no space, it’s organically raised, it’s as fresh as I want it to be and the waste from it is garden compost."
Ross first brought a group of San Franciscans together to chow down on cooked insects a year ago, and he was surprised when the guests started buzzing around him for raw samples.
"I was like, ‘OK, go for it,"’ he said. "And then that just led to this very weird eroticism moment when people were practically hugging each other while eating these live insects."
The spirit of the moment overflowed, leading, in a few cases, to groping and kissing in the corner.
"I wasn’t expecting that," he said.
No such love-in transpired among the 40 or so diners at the Brooklyn Kitchen. This is New York, after all. But since the event was simultaneously a history lesson, a lavish meal and an act of performance art, you could hear a lot of talk about edible insects as a vehicle for personal and cultural transformation. As Lamus put it, "You get to know the world when you get to know the food."
Ross said his own doors of perception were blasted open about 20 years ago, when he was traveling through countries like Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. These were places where snacking on insects "was the most normal thing in the world," he said. "People would eat them right out of the ground. There would be, like, a swarm of locusty-type things and kids would burst out of school and start devouring them on the spot. It was like watching popcorn fly through the air, for them. It turns your world upside down a little bit."
In most cultures outside of North America and Western Europe, tiny multi-legged creatures are a delicacy, and an important source of protein. In the United States they represent the growing realm of gastronomic spelunking: Sure, you’re open to offal, menudo and mucilaginous Japanese yamaimo, but can you really call yourself a fearless foodie if your taste buds have never tangoed with the rotted-palm grubs of Uganda (yes, they’re dug out of the pulpy trunks of dead trees), or Chinese scorpion soup or Mexican stink-bug pate?
Indeed, Moorehead said she’d been inspired to come to the Brooklyn Kitchen after becoming a fan of "Bizarre Foods," Andrew Zimmern’s globe-trotting, anything-eating show on the Travel Channel. Get Zimmern on the topic of bug-eating and he, like many other evangelists for the practice, can sound like Timothy Leary touting the consciousness-expanding properties of LSD.
"Because the psychological handicap is so intense in our culture when it comes to food," Zimmern said in a phone interview, "for people who flip the light switch and head on down the hallway with alternative foods, the bliss factor is quadrupled."
Zimmern can rattle off a nauseating litany of bliss, from eating tarantulas in Cambodia to stir-fried bees in Taiwan. He loves the chapulines – little fried grasshoppers – of Oaxaca. (They’re a consistently popular item at the Manhattan restaurant Toloache, where they’re served in tacos.)
"They’re crunchy but they’re kind of soft in a beef jerky way," said Zimmern, who once worked with Thomas Keller. "They’re heavily flavored with lime and salt, and they’re the perfect bar snack. You can’t stop eating them. Sauteed silkworm larvae in Thailand are pliant, they’re like little pillows. They remind me of gnocchi. And they have this earthy, loamy, mushroomy flavor. Eaten on their own, they’re good. Sauteed with ginger and scallions, they’re out of control."
At the Brooklyn Kitchen, diners ranged from insect virgins to Zimmern-style thrill-seekers who could debate the relative merits of wolf spiders and Icelandic fermented shark.
"There’s a lot of adventurous eaters out there," said Harry Rosenblum, who owns the Brooklyn Kitchen, a food emporium, with his wife, Taylor Erkkinen.
And there are those who aspire to adventure, like Pamela Zwaskis, 30, a Victoria’s Secret employee who moved to New York.
"We don’t have five-course insect dinners in Wilmington, Del.," she said. "I want to tell my friends, ‘I ate that."’
By the end of the night Zwaskis was shoveling chapulines into her mouth.
"They taste like the exoskeleton of a potato chip," she said.
Perhaps the most pioneering gourmand of all was Moxie Rosenblum, the daughter of Erkkinen and Harry Rosenblum, who swallowed a live wax moth worm the day before the dinner. She is 14 months old.
That moment might mark the start of a lifelong habit for Moxie. Although it’s hard to pinpoint where the Western bias against bug-eating comes from, the gross-out factor seems to be conditioned in childhood.
"I had nightmares as a kid," photojournalist Peter Menzel said by phone. "In my dream I would be eating a bowl of shredded wheat or something, and in the milk in the bottom would be these thrashing insects."
Years later he and his wife, Faith D’Aluisio, traveled around the world to chronicle the endless permutations of entomophagy in a 1998 book called "Man Eating Bugs." The odyssey turned into an unusual mode of therapy for Menzel, complete with a classic Jungian breakthrough: at a restaurant in southern China he ate custard studded with river worms.
"This big handful was dumped into the casserole, and the worms just went crazy, they were thrashing in the milk and the custard was flying out of the thing," he said. "And it was just like my dream. It came full circle.
"It was actually delicious," Menzel added. "It was like a quiche with little bits of very tender bacon in it."
More than a few insects are associated with pestilence and disease, of course, and others sting us or drink our blood. (For a city besieged by bedbugs, the Brooklyn Kitchen feast felt like a chance to bite back.) Some people have reported allergic reactions after eating bugs.
"If you have an allergy to shellfish," Ross said, "it’s a good thing to tread cautiously with insects."
Most of the time, though, insects are harmless, and there are quintillions of them. Getting over our squeamish bias, some say, could lead to a cheap alternative to factory-farmed protein.
Tom Turpin, 67, an entomology professor at Purdue who has lectured on insect-eating for about 30 years, has his doubts.
"On the surface, you would think that that might be the case," he said. "But in reality, it would be very difficult to have enough insect protein to really make a difference."
Besides, bugs are already part of the human diet in most places with widespread hunger.
That said, Turpin pointed out that an irrational American fear of finding the tiniest scrap of wing on a leaf of spinach is a big reason farmers spray crops.
"We probably end up using more pesticides because of the attitude that people in this country exhibit about eating an insect," he said. "Where in other societies, if you found an insect, you’d say, ‘Oh, well. An insect.’ You’d either eat it or throw it aside."
In the end, Ross didn’t use his evening at the Brooklyn Kitchen to preach. His methods were more delicate and subversive: He wanted to show how scrumptious the bugs can be. The menu included a ceviche abloom with the cross-pollinating flavors of jicama, papaya, sweet potato, jalapeno and crickets.
"Wax moth larvae taste like bacon, and mealworms sort of taste like pumpkinseeds," he said. "But crickets taste like crickets. They have their own distinct animal-ness. It’s sort of like goat. It’s strong."
He simmered heirloom tomatoes in duck fat and matched that sauce with plump, braised, umami-bomb gusanos de maguey – expensive caterpillars that have to be painstakingly rooted out of agave leaves. Each course was paired with a Mexican cocktail. (For one, raw cucumbers were hollowed out like cups, filled with mescal and rimmed with "worm salt" – a pungent powder of salt, chilies and ground-up agave worms.) He told the assembled throng that he wanted to transport them back in time – to a hacienda outside Mexico City in 1600, say, when indigenous and Iberian cultures were colliding.
Then again, some guests felt transported to an episode of "Fear Factor" or maybe Marlon Brando’s "I swallowed a bug" scene in "Apocalypse Now." Milling around the kitchen before dinner, Beth Levison, 41, a documentary filmmaker, wasn’t sure what to expect.
"Does everything have bugs in it?" she asked.
"Pretty much," Ross, an old friend, told her from behind a stove.
"Wow," she said, and then began thinking out loud. "I thought I would just eat around the bugs. But apparently the food is really suffused with bugs."
She paused. "I’m really anxious. Like pit-of-my-stomach anxious."
She wound up leaving her gusanos de maguey untouched, and before dessert had arrived (vanilla ice cream with a flourish of cayenne-spiced and agave-syrup-sweetened mealworms), she and her husband had dashed back to the West Village to relieve their baby sitter.
Everyone has a limit. Even, it turns out, Ross.
"We eat disgusting stuff all the time," he said. "The thing that I won’t eat? I’ve just never been partial to lobster."