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Kristen Cyr
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Gracer sees insects as sustainable solution
for feeding a growing world population

Sept. 29, 2014

Adjunct English instructor David Gracer is also an expert in entomophagy – eating bugs. Adjunct English instructor David Gracer is also an expert in entomophagy – eating bugs.

When David Gracer, adjunct instructor of English at the Community College of Rhode Island for the past decade, talks about his classes, his passion is palpable. He is animated but precise, practiced in his words and describing his methods.

They're a little unconventional, he said; where other professors might teach strictly from the textbook, he prefers a more "visceral" methodology to guide his exercises: "Try a new cuisine, write an essay about it. Observe a stranger in public, write an essay about it. Visit a house of worship for a different faith and write an essay about it." He makes the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar, sound fun and fascinating.

But as ardent as Gracer is about teaching students how to self-assess, to be reflective and to be able to communicate their thoughts and feelings to the world, it's not the only passion percolating in his busy mind. He also happens to be a renowned expert on entomophagy – that is, in plainer speak, eating bugs.

"I'm not good about being coy about it," he said of the fact that his students typically find out early on in their time together. "I tell them that teaching is my job, but this is my work. I'm saving our species."

To the uninitiated, Gracer's claim might sound baffling. Those of us who are at all familiar with the concept of eating bugs have probably only been exposed to novelty items such as chocolate-covered grasshoppers in a gift shop or the spectacle of reality television shows such as "Fear Factor." But that's no closer kin to Gracer's work than ants are to anteaters.

What Gracer is doing when he promotes the cultivation and ingestion of insects as protein is closely aligned with conservation, with heading off the food riots and environmental crises that he sees as foregone conclusions in our not-so-distant future.

"There's the nutritional aspect, and that's very well documented," he said, referring to the fact that insects are high in protein as well as vitamins, minerals and amino acids essential to growth and development. "But there's also the resource requirement piece. To produce a unit of cricket versus beef, chicken or soy – the footprint is exponentially smaller. They have a short lifespan, low water requirements, they won't get each other sick, they won't get people sick, you can harvest them in six weeks and the waste management issues are nonexistent."

There is, of course, what Gracer refers to as the "eww factor": the long-standing resistance to the idea of eating insects. Though other cultures have been eating insects for centuries, we here in the West haven't exactly gotten with the program.

To combat this, Gracer said it's essential that people experience the culinary offering in an experiential setting, such as an insect festival or educational venue such as a nature center. If someone is cooking up the bugs in front of you and speaking about them with authority, he said – perhaps seasoning them with some nice celery salt, as Gracer is wont to do with his crickets – and your friend tries it with you, you're more likely to be open to the possibility.

Photo of bugs that can be eaten.He said the flavor profile of many insects is similar to tofu or chicken, mostly taking on the flavor of whatever the bugs are spiced with. And though he doesn't cook them regularly at home ("I'm a lousy cook," he said), he's experienced about 60 types of terrestrial arthropods – mostly insects, but scorpions as well. "Those roly-poly wood lice are very tasty," he noted.

Other than the benign taste and considerable nutritional value, Gracer said the "eww factor" is worth overcoming. The father of a 10-year-old girl, Gracer is particularly attuned to the possibility that the future might not look so rosy. "Look at what's projected: 10 billion people by 2050, and no one knows how to feed them. There are so many other threats against our food supply. GMOs, overfishing, erosion, fertilizer shortages and climate change. It's my belief that people really just hope that they die before things hit the fan on their watch," he said.

To wait and see what happens is not good enough for Gracer. He wants to bring his knowledge to the public before food riots become more widespread and before the crises really kick in. It all ties back, he said, to his spirit of curiosity and adventure – to knowing that the way that we've always done things might not necessarily be the best way.

"My work in entomophagy and teaching dovetail; it's all about critical thinking skills, always about asking better questions. One of them gives me energy for the other," he said.

A 'light bulb moment'
Gracer's willingness to embark on culinary roads less traveled is particularly ironic given his history with food, he said. As a child, he was a famously picky eater, subsisting solely on butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs and breakfast cereal. But he was fascinated by nature, exploring his surroundings and amassing collections of insects, seashells, African postage stamps and other talismans from the natural world.

As he grew older, his interest in the natural world nurtured his palate: He began to experience wild, foraged foods, such as the mushrooms he now finds in and around Providence to sell to high-end restaurants. "I'm kind of a food snob now, a foodie," he said.

It was the perfect storm, then, when a friend from his undergraduate days at Bard College introduced him to boxed mealworm and cricket snacks with the dare: "You're mister foodie now. Eat these." That gave Gracer what he calls his "light bulb moment," and he's been gaining momentum ever since, appearing at global conferences and in major newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The New York Times as well as on shows such as "The Colbert Report" and "The Tyra Banks Show."

Gracer recently returned from an interdisciplinary conference in Montreal that he helped to organize, where he spoke, among other duties, about his extensive museum-style collection of images, texts and objects relating to the practice of entomophagy. He has another conference in Hartford, Connecticut, on the docket for October, where he will give a lecture on why Americans react the way they most often do to the idea of noshing on insects, drawing parallels to the film "Soylent Green."

In addition to his speaking engagements, Gracer has been long at work on a traditional blank verse epic poem that revisits the story of Noah's Ark and imagines an outcome where the ark doesn't float, but rather shatters on the water at the hands of termites – a metaphor for our population's appetites and their destruction of our planet. "But in my version, when the ark is destroyed, that's not the end of it. Just as, for example, when the meteor hit the planet, that wasn't the end of life. There's always a new chapter," he said.

Gracer's sense of adventure and purpose isn't limited to spreading the gospel of bug. Last summer, he and longtime friend Trip Wolfskehl went on a waterborne odyssey to visit all of the islands – some official, some unofficial – within Rhode Island waters. Their trip, named Operation Landfall, took them to 52 islands over the course of 18 days last July. They slept, ate and lived on their boat, a 19-foot Corinthian sloop with a dinghy and 2.5-horsepower motor, Monday through Friday, taking breaks on the weekends. Though Wolfskehl is an experienced sailor, Gracer isn't, though he committed himself to not complaining at all during the trip. Did he stick to his promise? "Yes," he said. "You might as well enjoy the suffering."

Perhaps it was easy for Gracer to remain philosophical about his seasickness because of the twin purposes of his journey. Wolfskehl was the catalyst for the trip, wanting to embark on it in response to the Newtown school shootings in December 2012. Himself the father of a young son, Wolfskehl wanted to use Operation Landfall as a fundraiser for Save The Bay, with the hope of exposing more young people to the wonders of nature. The pair raised about $3,000 in donations for the nonprofit, but Gracer said raising awareness was the more powerful motive.

"I believe that the best way to spend one's time in the world is to be an explorer," he said.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16