AAbuzz With Bugs

By Allison T. Hoffman

Published August 20, 2004, issue of August 20, 2004.
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Swat, squash, slap, smash, smack: Faced with the high whine of flying invaders, teeming masses of tiny creatures or the sickly sheen of hard brown insect shells, we’ll happily whack them, fumigate them, chemical-bomb them, even flash-freeze them. Never mind that we may share a common protean ancestor with the creepy-crawlies, or that we all may be on our way to the same resting place of dust, maggots and worms. Forget biblical injunctions against mass murder. Should we feel guilty? Even Gregor Samsa’s father couldn’t stop himself from flinging apples at his own poor metamorphosed son.

But Josie Glausiusz wonders why we all can’t just get along. A science writer and one-time policy-maker in the Israeli Ministry of the Environment, Glausiusz was once a closet bug crusher, too — ardently opposed to the wholesale use of chemical pesticides like DDT, sure, but not above a little petty extermination in the privacy of her own apartment. Roaches? Stomped on, even though Glausiusz knows that it only spreads their eggs. Ticks? Not popular, either. Mosquitoes? Gone as soon as they’re spotted, even though, Glausiusz notes, the Talmud teaches that they were created before man “so that if man becomes haughty he can be deflated by being told, ‘the mosquito came before you.’”

Then, on an assignment for Discover magazine, where she is a senior editor, Glausiusz met Volker Steger, a science photographer based in Munich, whose high-magnification “portrait” photographs of insects in action — fighting, mating, eating — changed her mind. In Steger’s photographs, most of them taken under an electron microscope, cat fleas look like crowned cockatiels, maggots vaguely resemble Queen Victoria and even mosquitoes look elegant, almost like dragonflies.

“For the first time, I saw that they could be beautiful, too,” said Glausiusz in an interview with the Forward. “It’s balletic, it’s dainty, it has this evanescence and delicacy.”

Now, six years after their first meeting, Glausiusz has written the text to accompany Steger’s photographs in “Buzz; The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects” (Chronicle), a glossy, graphic catalog that includes extreme close-ups of dog ticks mating, a blowfly hatching and a ladybug ravenously inhaling a tiny aphid.

None of the insects in “Buzz,” save for an enormous Madagascar hissing cockroach, is exotic; Steger, a biologist by training, orders his subjects from mail-order breeders or collects them from local parks and pest-control companies. But even familiar vermin become foreign and perversely alluring when they’re enlarged hundreds of times their actual size and tinted in lurid blues, greens, yellows and oranges not found in nature. Some, like the amorphous little dust mites, are casually hideous, but others, like the spiny, porcupine-y wardrobe beetle, look kind of cute.

“Why not celebrate their many bonds with humans?” asks Glausiusz in her introduction, and yes, why not? The Colorado potato beetle was once so feared by the Nazis that they created a Kartoffelkäferabwehrdienst (Potato Beetle Defense Service) to protect the Reich’s crops against the imaginary threat of British “bug bombs.” Bees produce a secretion with a potent anti-inflammatory effect, along with honey and beeswax. Maggots help heal ulcers faster than do conventional medications.

And bugs, Glausiusz found, are all over the Bible, “though of course it’s got everything else in it, so it’s got to have insects,” she notes. Ants are so efficient that the Proverbs offer their highly effective habits as a moral example: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Locusts were instrumental in the plagues of Exodus, when they “covered the surface of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened, and they ate every plant of the land, and all the fruit of the trees.” And those same locusts, along with grasshoppers, may have saved the earliest Jews from starvation: The book of Leviticus counts both creatures as kosher.

“They’re basically vegetarian, like most kosher animals,” says Glausiusz, who writes in “Buzz” that a hundred grams of grasshoppers contains 20 grams of Atkins-approved protein and only six grams of fat. “And if they’re eating all your crops, well — it’s a pragmatic exception.”

So never mind that although insect legs and tails are made up of chewy, chicken-like muscle tissue, their tough shells have an unfortunate tendency to shatter and stick in diners’ teeth. Also that approximately 10% of the weight of a two-year-old pillow is composed of dust mites and their droppings. And that wingless little fleas can launch themselves into the air at 140 times the force of gravity, more than 20 times the liftoff power of a space shuttle.

The thing to remember, Glausiusz says, is a lesson that Maimonides taught more than a century ago: “Do not believe that all things exist for the sake of humanity. On the contrary, one must believe that… everything exists for its own sake and not for anything or anyone else.”

A Recipe for Larval Latkes

Try this variation on the traditional northern European dish, as I did during Chanukah. I wanted to see if my friends could tell the difference between mealworms and grated potatoes. They could.

I’m pleased to report, however, that the cheerful orange-colored pancakes with a charming chitinous crunch were quite well received. Some of their success may be attributed to the sour cream and applesauce toppings, which were flavorful complements to the grated onion and yam. The toppings also serve as an edible veil for the insect ingredients. Not everybody wants to see the 800 medium-sized standard mealworms that go into this dish.

A word of caution: Though some bugs are kosher, including crickets and grasshoppers, neither mealworms nor the darkling beetles into which they metamorphose are kosher. Therefore, this recipe should not be served at gatherings of Orthodox or Conservative Jews.

Larval Latkes (a.k.a. Grubsteaks)

1 yam

1 small yellow onion

1 cup frozen standard mealworms, thawed

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup peanut oil

1.Grate the yam and onion, using a grater with serrations that correspond to the size of the mealworms to be employed.
2.Combine the two ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Then add the egg, flour, baking powder and pepper.
3.With a wooden spoon, gently stir in the thawed mealworms, taking care not to mash (or otherwise damage) their bodies.
4.In a large skillet, heat 1/16 inch of peanut oil over medium-high heat. Fry generous dollops of the mealworm, onion, and yam mixture in the hot oil (about 2 or 3 minutes per side), gently flattening them down with a spatula as they are flipped.

5. Drain each latke on a layer of paper towels. Serve immediately, topped with sour cream and/or applesauce — or “straight up” — as your guests prefer.

Yield: 8 Servings

From David George Gordon’s “Eat-A-Bug Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 1998).

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