Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space to attend the second-ever Secret Science Club North lecture, featuring the American Museum of Natural History's parasitologist and curator of invertebrates Dr Mark Siddall. Dr Siddall's topic was the consumption of various invertebrates for the good of the consumer and the good of the planet. Dr Siddall had delivered a previous Secret Science Club lecture about leeches back in December 2012. Before the lecture, Secret Science Goddesses Margaret Mittelbach and Dorian Devins were giving out samples of gummy worms and, more importantly, delicious mealworms and crickets:
The cocktail of the evening was the deliciously "swampy" Spineless Wonder, a blend of Bailey's, vodka, and Coca-Cola- the acidity of the cola partially curdled the Bailey's, making for a slightly chunky drink.
Dr Siddall's lecture last night was largely a travelogue/epicurean exploration. Think of a night spent listening to a very funny, very intelligent friend talking about their travels to interesting locations in the developing world and you'll get an idea about last night's lecture. Dr Siddall began by asking the audience if any members were vegans or vegetarians, moving to to asking attendees where they drew the line regarding consuming animals... would any of us eat gorilla? How about dolphins? They're relatively closely related to cows, which many of us eat. He displayed a mammalian cladogram and asked us to pick out which animals we'd eat- would any of us eat an opossum but not a wallaby? He then showed a cladogram of all known animal taxa and asked us which of these animals we would eat. He reminisced about taking university students on a tour of tidal zones and exhorting them to add taste to the other sense they used to explore the environment, serving them mussels and (at the tides ebb) sea urchin gonads. He noted that barnacles were tasty, being basically stationary shrimp encased in a stony shell, but eating the typical Atlantic barnacles was too difficult to be practical- likening barnacles to the "celery of the sea", one would burn more calories rendering them edible than one would obtain by eating. He then told of his "barnacle epiphany", trying the giant picoroco barnacle in Chile and finding it delicious. This was the first of many times in the course of the lecture in which he averred that, if in doubt about the palatability of any foodstuff, you should eat it served in a spicy broth. In an aside, he quipped that you should eat with a parasitologist if you want to know what bugs you.
To determine how squeamish the audience members were, Dr Siddall showed us a slide of huitlacoche, then he passed around a bag of tortilla chips and a container of delicious corn smut for the audience to sample. Que sabor rico!
The bulk of the lecture was occupied by a slide show of Dr Siddall in various markets in various nations, eating various invertebrates. Interspersed with pictures of Dr Siddall munching on grubs and grasshoppers, there were pictures of vultures scavenging the leavings at an outdoor market, of a jolly African matron laughing because the Americans wanted to eat mopane "worms" (in a spicy broth, of course), giant Hercules beetle grubs roasted on a stick (tastes like buttered popcorn! he quipped). He told us a funny story about the run-up to a trip to Oaxaca, when he enthusiastically told his young daughter that they would be eating chapulines, so that she was eager to be eating them in a taco with a spicy sauce and guacamole. In a picture of a bucket in a market in Korea, he remarked, "There are five phyla in that bucket!"
He advised us, if you want to know what's safe to eat, you ask the locals and you eat what the locals eat. In Madagascar, he joked about how the staple was rice- rice for dinner every day, occasionally a meal of beans, and if you were lucky, rice and beans. He then quizzed us about water safety, showing pictures of two glasses of water and asking whether one should drink the cloudy water or the clear water- answer: the cloudy water was boiled in the pot in which the rice was cooked to loosen the rice from the pot, and was safe to drink. He then showed a picture of Secret Science Club lecturer and all-around great person Evon Hekkala laid up with a bad illness she got from the water in Madagascar. He also talked about cultural savvy in the field- you should eat whatever is placed in front of you because it represents an act of hospitality from someone who can little afford it. If you are a vegan and your host or guide offers you their last chicken, eat the chicken. It's less of a sacrifice than the one made by your host.
Being the leech guy, Dr Siddall digressed on the topic of edible leeches, pronouncing the blood-suckers kinda flaccid and tasteless. The leeches to eat are the muscular carnivorous ones, like the giant earthworm eating red leeches. He showed us a portrait of himself eating a leech while a grad student working in the field- the booze bottles photoshopped out because he had shown the lecture to a bunch of grammar school students.
Another aside dealt with the "medicinal" uses of certain foods- snake is sold in the markets of Taiwan to improve virility, scorpions are sold in the winter because they are considered "hot". He then mentioned English naturalist Thomas Muffet, whose writings on the medicinal virtues of eating spiders may have inspired the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet.
Dr Liddall then went into a lengthy digression about the blister beetle Lytta vesicatoria, the infamous Spanish fly, the source of the blistering agent Cantharone- he related an anecdote about a pediatrician wishing to topically apply Cantharone to his daughter's arm, but he wouldn't allow the treatment until he swabbed himself with it. After much resistance, he liberally applied it to his arm, resulting in three-inch blisters- the pediatrician told him that the merest touch would be applied to his daughter's arm. He then related a tale about the Marquis De Sade giving Spanish fly laced sweets to women because the irritating agent is concentrated in the urogenital system and the "stimulation" was thought to be an aphrodesiac. He also told of a unit of the French Foreign Legion that had been laid up with painful priapism from eating the legs of frogs that had consumed Lytta vesicatoria. Frogs have a knack for accumulating insect toxins- the wickedly poisonous golden poison frog accumulates beetle toxins in its flesh. This led to a bit of advice about avoiding bright bugs- they are aposematic, they advertise their toxic status by standing out.
Another funny topic was drunken elephants- Dr Siddall noted that it would take three trailer loads of fermented marula fruits to get an elephant drunk, and that the intoxicated elephants of legend are probably tripping on poisonous insects consumed with tree bark. Another slide showed a slug happily munching on an Amanita muscaria.
Regarding locust "plagues", Dr Siddall advised us to eat the locusts, noting that it was sad that Laura Ingalls Wilder's dad didn't know that. He showed a newsreel of an African locust plague and noted that the gentleman walking through the cloud of grasshoppers ate one.
The home stretch of the lecture dealt with the nutritive value of insects. Dr Siddall noted that the worst features of malnutrition resulted from an underconsumption of protein and a lack of protein and fat diversity. Starches are easier to come by. After an strong exhortation not to eat bats, which carry ebola, Dr Siddall started to show us "nutritional labels" for various insects. To produce a pound of beef, it requires 12 pounds of feed, 5,000 gallons of water, and 31 kilowatt-hours. For a pound of chicken, it requires 2 pounds of feed, 815 gallons of water, and 4 kilowatt hours. By comparison, a pound of crickets requires 2 pounds of feed, one gallon of water, and 2 kilowatt hours.
2.5 acres can produce enough beef to feed one person, while the same land can produce a plethora of crickets. Dr Siddall exhorted us to eat more insects. Currently, three pounds of cricket "flour" typically costs around sixty dollars. Demand for edible insect products will drive costs down.
The whole lecture involved a lot of audience participation. In one exchange, a lucky bastard was able to say he ate a bug because he took advantage of the periodic influx of brown marmorated stink bugs at his workplace... and to think that earlier that day he'd only eaten cicadas among the real "bugs". Besides huitlacoche, Dr Siddall passed around figs so we could eat the tiny wasps that inhabit the inflorescenses. It was a very fun lecture with a serious takeaway- eat insects, preferably in a spicy broth.
In the Q&A, some bastard asked Dr Siddall a question in his capacity as the leech guy. Given the number of (relatively) unrelated taxa that consume blood, were the anticoagulants used by, or example, leeches and mosquitos, similar? Dr Siddall indicated that there are many factors in the coagulation cascade that can be targeted. Hirudin, the anticoagulant in the saliva of the medicinal leech, is an anti-thrombin. Different sanquivorous taxa target different parts of the coagulation cascade, some anti-coagulants attack thromin, some attack pre-thrombin, some attack platelets. There are also anticoagulants that are A-pyrases, they destroy free ATP (after the lecture, I asked Dr Siddall if any of these pyrases were proposed as anti-cancer drugs, but they are large proteins that cannot penetrate the cell walls, making them unlikely to be used against tumors).
Another audience member, who suffers from ulcerative colitis, asked Dr Siddall about nematode therapy. After briefly discussing the hygiene hypothesis, Dr Siddall emphatically stated, "People in wormy areas would rather have your allergies than their parasitic worms." He then noted that pig whipworms, which cannot reproduce in a human host, can be used with some success. He then commented on the near eradication of the hideous Guinea worm, a meter-long worm that burrows beneath the skin- last year, there were only 83 recorded cases of Guinea worm, all in South Sudan.
A funny question by an audience member regarded squeamishness- what does it take to make the bug-eating Leech Guy puke? His answer was that vomit makes him want to vomit, and that this has a really good evolutionary basis. We are descended from individuals who ate together, so if one of them ate something that made them sick, the others would be safer if they threw up as well. Those individuals who were non-pukers died off, leaving no descendents.
Asked about parasites, Dr Siddall noted that, while we are co-evolved with them, we don't need them. He then brought up toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a protozoan related to the malaria pathogen. The definitive hosts of toxoplasmosis are cats, though all mammals can act as vectors. Mice infected with toxoplasmosis tend to engage in risky behaviors- they don't fear cat urine and they are more active in the daytime... perfect behaviors to make it more likely that they will be eaten by cats. All mammals can act as hosts for toxoplasmosis- the organism tends to go through different stages in different hosts. In the bloodstream, the parasites reproduce quickly- they are "tachyzoids". In pregnant females, the tachyzoids can cross the fetal barrier in the placenta and cause birth defects (the process is known as teratogenesis). Never change kitty litter when you're pregnant- make someone else do it. Dr Siddall then joked that mosquitoes are the primary hosts of malaria, and that humans are vectoring the parasite for those poor mosquitoes.
After the lecture, Dr Siddall hung out with the crowd, fielding any and all questions. I asked him if he'd ever eaten trepang, which led to a digression on contact between Indonesia and Australia before Europeans "discovered" the continent. A young woman was asking about the feasibility of raising crickets in a community garden, and Dr Siddall noted that the insect market was unregulated but that insect producers, leery of onerous USDA crackdowns, tend to autoclave their product to forestall any scares. Some bastard joked that we should all pool our resources and start an "artisanal" cricket market and sell crickets to hipsters. That led to digressions about Brooklyn crickets (brickets- rub them with the same spices you rub on briskets) and pickled crickets- pricklets. Yeah, there was beer involved.
All told, it was a very fun night with a very engaging lecturer and some unusual snacks. Kudos to Dr Siddall, Dorian, Margaret, and the staff of the Symphony Space.