Behind the Bugs and Critters We Ate in the Bronx This Weekend
Another spring, another chance to eat smoked raccoon and spiced grubs in the Bronx. The Bronx Pipe Smoking Society's annual Small Game Dinner hit the borough this past weekend, offering up new opportunities to partake in raw porcupine salad alongside some familiar faces, including Bronx food missionary and film producer Baron Ambrosia.
This year we spent some time talking to the trappers and chefs who prepared the night's most eye opening and delicious dishes. From bugs to raccoon, here's how they came to be.
There's nothing sophisticated about how entomophagist David Gracer prepared his katydids. They're remarkably palatable without any seasoning, with a surprisingly pleasant flavor. What's interesting is how he discovered them—and just how rare of a treat they are.
"Outside of Boston there's a town called Waltham with a very strong Ugandan presence," explained Gracer, who lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island. "So I learned about that, I drove up there, and man, they're expensive. It's a taste of nostalgia. This food is available for about ten days of the year, then it sells out, and comes in about one time a year, around Christmas for $90 a pound. They sell them in little baggies and I bought a couple pounds."
Gracer says he enjoys katydids because of their natural buttery flavor. But he also admits their esoteric origins appeal to him, and that if bug eating ever goes mainstream, katydids will probably not appear on most menus.
Should you come into a few pounds of katydids yourself, here's how to cook them: heat them gently over low heat in a dry pan so they don't burn. Cook until they turn crisp, then serve them. Gracer doesn't salt his katydids; they have a distinct flavor he describes as "nature's own."
Raccoon and Cricket Sushi
Americans have been doing weird things to sushi since it arrived to on our spectacle shores, stuffing the rice with avocado, mayonnaise, and shrimp tempura. Leave it to a Japanese-American, Bun Lai of Miya's in New Haven, to retrofit the concept with raw bugs and woodland critters.
Lai has been motivated by sustainability since 2004; he recently received some press in Food & Wine for incorporating the invasive lionfish into his restaurant's menu.
"I have never worked with any one of these ingredients before. The reason I'm on board is because I love the Baron's mission of introducing people to new ideas of eating and living. My passion is sustainable foods. Raccoon is a species that is locally abundant, some say overpopulated, and a food that is fully underappreciated. For me, it was intriguing to use. Is it something I'm going to use in the future more often? Ah, probably not.
"My cuisine is mostly plant-focused, but there are a lot of cool ideas. With raccoon, you're not importing it from abroad. It's a wild food and doesn't have the antibiotics mass-produced meat does. Cricket makes perfect sense for my restaurant. Most of the world eats insects—it's only us who are incredibly squeamish about it. Given climate change, insects are the way to go. I've seen statistics that on an acre of land you can raise 250 pounds of cow or 2,500 pounds of insects. I'm really enjoying using new ingredients that are challenging me. Ethically, it's very complex. I don't know enough about trapping, for example. In eating, it's not often a black and white issue."
Raw Porcupine Salad
While researching possible dishes for the dinner, Baron Ambrosia discovered that porcupine is generally safe to eat raw. The critters are vegetarians and typically solitary, meaning they're unlikely to carry parasites. How could he not bring the dish to the people?
Ambrosia called upon his friend, chef Joe Boonchun of Siam Square, to prepare the dish in a traditional Thai way. That meant nam tok, a meat salad where the protein is seasoned with fish sauce, lime, ground dried chilies, shallots, and herbs. The meat was the chewiest protein I've ever had, but it was amply seasoned if not subtly gamey.
This celebratory Malian dish is typically prepared with lamb, "a very special meat" according to Assetou Sy, who's made it for the Baron and me in the past. Here the dish was made with muskrat, served in a sauce that's at once earthy and fermented with a velvety chocolate texture.
"If you see this see this sauce, you will ask, what is this? When you eat it, you will love it," Sy began. "This kind of herb [also called fakoye] we use, it grows in the desert. When we have guests, we have to prepare fakoye. We use dried fish, not smoked, so don't be surprised if you smell something."
Fakoye is more or less unheard of in the States, but for Sy and her people, it's a cuisine-defining dish.
"I want to tell you a little bit more on the fakoye," Ambrosia chimed in. "It has something in it called sambala, a fermented nut that gives it an enchanting, unusual chocolatey flavor. That's what make it so great and mischievous."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.