More than 1,000 guests in gowns and tuxedos crowded into a two-story hall on Saturday night at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Standing among a pack of well-preserved African elephants, they sampled the delicacies offered by waiters wending their way through the throngs. They had come for the annual dinner of the Explorers Club — and the cocktail-hour fare certainly required an adventurous palate: All of it was made of insects.
Guest of honor Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a formal vest with gold celestial shapes, picked up a Cambodian cricket rumaki canape, looking at it skeptically before taking a bite.
"I have come to surmise, in the culinary universe, that anytime someone feels compelled to wrap something in bacon, it probably doesn't taste very good," he said. (The actual universe is his real specialty: Tyson is the director of the museum's Hayden Planetarium and host of Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.)
The historic club promotes scientific exploration of new frontiers, and Tyson was being honored with its prestigious Explorers Medal. Appropriately, he was willing — if not exactly eager — to explore the cricket specialty.
Waiting for a moment to consider the taste, he said he liked the crunchiness but declared the crickets and other exotic appetizers — such as cockroach canapes, wax worm quesadillas and teriyaki grasshopper kabobs — "not as good as a rib-eye."
Tyson, a modern-day science hero, says the logical appeal behind eating bugs, a growing trend in the West, is perfectly clear: "Insects have been long known as a great source of protein, so I don't have a problem with that."
In fact, as we've reported, insect cuisine has steadily been gaining traction. Startups like Exo and Bitty use cricket flour in their protein bars and cookies. The United Nations has also advocated for insect cuisine, noting that bugs are nutritional powerhouses and easier on the environment than other protein sources. Insects have even made their way onto menus at upscale restaurants: At Oyamel, a Mexican establishment in Washington, D.C., customers can feast on tacos made with chapulines, or grasshoppers, a Oaxacan specialty.
Still, for many diners, the "yuck" factor persists when they think of biting into something with wiggling antennae and hard-shelled bodies. But that's not the type of thing to put off the Explorers Club, which chose insect cuisine for this year's appetizers as a way to highlight sustainability practices.
Chef David Gregory Gordon, author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, who designed the evening's culinary bugfest, pulled out all the stops in preparing his dishes. He spent $15,000 on insects for the evening, which he says is probably the "largest edible insect event in the history of the world."
Ingredients included about 4 pounds of organic cricket nymphs (that's about 3 large pillow sacks filled with crickets), 350 American cockroaches from a research lab at the University of California, Riverside and 200 tarantulas.
Tyson took a sip of his wine before biting into one of Chef Gordon's deep-fried tarantulas, with its round body and myriad legs. "I think the tarantula is one of the ghastliest things in all of the tree of life, so maybe to confront that fact, I have to eat one," he mused as he munched.
A few wary bites did not change his negative opinion of the creature. And while Tyson says he remains open to adapting his palate to trying more bug cuisine, he doesn't expect the museum's cafe to be adding insect appetizers to the menu anytime soon.