Can you hear those “Keep Asheville Weird” bumper stickers chirping? You should: Some local chefs are burrowing past plain old weird, striking solid cricket gold. And while eating insects might freak out a lot of people, in Asheville, folks are lining up to lick, chew and swallow bugs.
Around the globe, many cultures include some variety of insect in their diet, but Americans remain generally averse to the notion. Yet thanks to bug-eating evangelists like Daniella Martin, who wrote Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, disgust for entomophagy just might morph into practical wisdom. Nutrition aside, proponents say raising bugs for human consumption is much better environmentally and supports a sustainable food supply.
I borrowed Edible from the library last year, and my wife and I ordered crickets, mealworms and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. When I went to our apartment building’s office to pick them up, the woman who’d signed for them said she wouldn’t touch the boxes because of the scratching and thumping inside.
I’ve detested roaches since childhood. Once, a Palmetto bug came in through my bedroom window: I awoke to its hairy legs scratching past my ear. Another time, one flew down from the ceiling and landed smack on my forehead. My wife says they still like to harass me when we visit the Carolina coast.
Roasted and mixed into tacos, the mealworms and crickets added a nice crunch and a hint of burnt popcorn (probably because we overcooked them). The roaches were another story: Battered and fried, they oozed when sliced, a white congealing flesh that tasted like a gritty, pasty solvent. My attempt to conquer a phobia failed, and my disgust is undiminished.
I met Alyssa DeRonne, the founder and owner of LaViewEye, at the West Asheville tailgate market. Her nametag reads “Alyssa, Bug Dealer,” and a copy of Edible lays on her table, next to baskets of her cricket bars. They come in tasty flavors — cacao cayenne, ginger vanilla, dirty chai, everything bagel, lemon cardamom, blueberry maca and orange carrot — and each one contains about 15 powdered crickets. I tried them all and couldn’t detect even a hint of insect.
When I ask DeRonne what she thinks her crickets taste like, she says an earthy sunflower seed.
While we talk, a kid tries a sample, takes one of the “I eat bugs” stickers and says he is “sticking this on and wearing it with pride.”
“Are you going to tell your friends?” DeRonne says playfully. “Don’t tell them right away: Let them take a bite and then tell them.” Others make comments like “So good and interesting.” “Oh my God, it’s so good!” and “I wanna make sandwiches out of these guys.”
Most people, DeRonne explains, are just curious; a few get excited, and some would never try a taste. But she says her 5-year-old loves the bars and loves telling people about them. Her 2-year-old eats whole, dry, roasted crickets by the handful.
And if you don’t like the idea of eating a bug bar, how about licking them from the rim of a margarita? You can do that at Limones on Eagle Street, where the salt rim on the Maya margarita includes crickets as well as orange and lime zest, ancho and chile de arbol peppers. This $10 Mexican-inspired curiosity is made with Monte Alban mezcal, tamarind juice, orange juice and Cointreau.
Regulars, notes bartender Matthew Hollingsworth, call the cocktail “swampy,” saying there’s just something about a brown cricket drink.
Perhaps the most unusual of Limones’ 11 margaritas, it’s attracted a modest following over the years. “It’s fun to get someone to try something they never have,” says Hollingsworth, explaining that the owner makes special trips to Mexico City to stock up on the freshly forest-harvested critters. Roasted and spiced in-house, they bring out the tamarind flavor of the drink while imparting a nutty, meaty earthiness.
Sipping gently, I stab my tongue at the salt rim, desperately trying to detect the crickets, which are commonly eaten in some parts of Mexico. My prodding wins me a tropical, Cajun, musty, wet dusting, hosed off by a tart brown liquid. I pictured myself as a Mexican cowboy, Caribbean blue hat adorned with a giant green cricket leg instead of a feather, hopping off into the sunset.