As a protein-plentiful power source, crickets pack a punch. I’ll also add—they have a nice crunch.

These facts highlighted Bug Night at Sutter Dining last week, an annual attempt to introduce Chico State students to the virtues of eating insects—and to think of them as a viable and more sustainable food source.

“The goal was to shed light on sustainable alternative protein sources, while focusing on environmental impact,” said AS Dining Services Director Tom Rider. “For example, while it takes 22,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef protein, it takes less than 1 liter of water to produce 1 kilogram of crickets.”

While Rider’s idea of introducing bugs into commonly eaten dishes is becoming more common, there’s still a balance to strike making the uncommon ingredients “accessible, approachable, not too weird, but still challenging.”

This meant getting creative with the four courses offerings. As I sauntered to Sutter Dining’s Center Stage, I spied my first taste: creamy mac n’ cheese topped with crispy baked mealworms. As I would with each course, I opted to eat the bug by itself first—examining the texture and taste—before delving into the dish. 

A bowl of mac n' cheese with crunchy worms and a dish with a cricket taco.
The first two dishes, creamy mac n’ cheese (left) and crunchy cricket tacos (right), set the stage for the rest of the meal.

The mealworms were as crispy as advertised, with a slightly salty flavor, giving the feel of baked breadcrumbs atop the mound of mac n’ cheese. Creamy. Crispy. Delicious.

Next up were the crunchy cricket tacos, with fresh pico de gallo, cotija cheese, and chopped cilantro. Now, I’m not going out on a limb too much when I say the tacos as a whole tasted spectacular—but what I didn’t expect is that the crickets had a slightly spicy kick, like adding a Spicy Nacho Doritos to the taco.

A man is eating a taco.
Tacos? Delicious! Crunchy cricket tacos? Protein-packed deliciousness!

The idea of crickets being an excellent source of protein is increasingly popular—Forbes even called crickets the “next big food source.” According to Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, which provided the mealworms and crickets for the evening, crickets are also an excellent alternative source of iron and calcium. Stacked up against beef, which is arguably the most common protein source in the US, crickets are leaps and bounds ahead. 

Per 100 grams, beef provides 19.4 grams of protein, while an adult cricket yields 12.9 grams of protein. But, the adult cricket is in a league of its own in providing iron (9.5 milligrams, versus 2 milligrams for beef) and calcium (75.7 milligrams, versus 12 milligrams for beef).

Because life is short, I opted for dessert first. Before I finished my meal, my double chocolate brownie featured a creamy white vanilla frosting, drizzles of caramel sauce—and Chinese black ants. To me, the ants had a slightly bitter taste, which wasn’t a bad thing considering the sweetness of everything else on the plate. While it tempered any sweetness overload I may have otherwise experienced, visually the ants also stood out in stark contrast against the white frosting—and Rider said that was the point.

Black ants are set upon white vanilla frosting on a brownie.
There was no hiding these ants on my dessert.

“We’re trying to make sure the ants were still in your face, I didn’t want to hide them,” Rider said. “That defeats the purpose here.” 

Last up on the menu was the Spicy Sting, a Korean scorpion wonton appetizer mixed with Korean-style beef, covered with sweet and spicy gochujang sauce. With a salty hint and beautiful presentation, this dish was by far my favorite. With scorpion perched atop the beef, the stinger was in full view. And that got me thinking—what happens to the venom during preparation for consumption?

“Scorpion venom becomes inert when they die,” Rider said. “They all have some form of venom for hunting, so the ones we ate tonight once did, too.”

Rider added that on some of the larger specimens, “the stinger is removed because they’re hard to chew. But ours were full-flavored, stingers and all.”

A scorpion is perched atop seasoned beef on an appetizer.
The scorpion perched atop the Spicy Sting allowed a clear view of the stinger.

Students around Sutter Dining seemed to be enjoying their experiences as much as I was. Groups challenged each other, with some not hesitating to gobble down insects, while others emphatically—and colorfully—declined.

First-year English literature major Martha Servin-Gutierrez immediately knew she wanted to partake upon finding out about Bug Night.

“When they were announcing it before, I was like, ‘Oh, heck yeah, this looks cool!’” she said.

Pausing from her cricket taco and mealworm mac n’ cheese, she reported it tasted just like “normal food, just with extra crunchiness.”

“I don’t see a problem with eating bugs, it’s just like any other food,” Servin-Gutierrez added. “I’ve tried crickets before as snacks, so I’ll try other stuff now.”

Three buttons placed on a table.
I walked away from Bug Night with three shiny new buttons to mark my achievement—as well as a new understanding of bugs as a viable and more sustainable food source.

This is precisely one of Rider’s hopes—that students will grow so comfortable eating insects that won’t think twice about trying them. And in his estimation, this can only be a good thing—being mindful of future food choices, where they come from, and understanding their sustainable and environmental impact, both positive and negative.

“Special events like this help to break down preconceived notions about what eating bugs is like,” Rider said. “This is about going to college and challenging yourself a little bit.”