Chelsea Thomas cuts celery stalks into bite-sized pieces and slathers each with peanut butter. A few dozen kids and their dutiful parents have taken seats in the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s outdoor kitchen, where the 27-year-old is demonstrating how to make “ants on a log.” She picks up a vial the size of a blood sample and removes the lid to extract her secret ingredient: actual ants, lightly roasted.
“Have you tasted them before?” one boy asks. “Yes,” Thomas, who is wearing a dress printed with ladybugs, answers before assuring him that they’re “yummy.”
When she’s not at the Botanical Garden, where she runs the amphibian conservation program, Thomas tends to scores of beetles, cockroaches, and other insects living in the spare bedroom of her two-story Duluth home. Ever since the Buckhead native first tasted chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, in Mexico at the age of seven, she’s become a bug ambassador of sorts. She extols their virtues—they’re rich in protein, fatty acids, and iron—to anyone who might listen. And she’s quick to point out that they’re cheaper to cultivate and more environmentally sustainable than conventional meats. (It takes 2,000 times the amount of water to produce a pound of beef than it does for a pound of crickets, for example.) Eighty percent of the world’s countries already consume insects, and, with high-profile chefs like José Andrés serving grasshopper tacos at Oyamel in Washington, D.C., and Brad Kostelyk cooking Thai water beetles at Nue in Seattle, Thomas dreams of Atlanta becoming the insect culinary capital of the South.
Plus, she finds them delicious. “This is not just a survival food,” she says. For an average weeknight dinner, Thomas might make wax worm tacos or toss pasta in pesto made with mealworms instead of pine nuts. In a blind taste test, there’s little discernible difference between worm pesto—she playfully calls the dish pesto tenebrio, for the scientific name of the species—and “normal” pesto. As for the ants, they’re slightly sour without being over-the-top acidic.
But thanks to federal regulations, Thomas can’t serve what she grows to those kids or to anyone at Botanical Garden tastings. Instead, she offers them Food and Drug Administration–approved prepackaged insects. “Regulations definitely allow for the farming of edible insects; they just have to be grown in approved facilities,” she says.
Currently, only a few Georgia farms are growing insects for human consumption. “It’s still considered novel,” says Marianne Shockley, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia. Shockley sees insects following the trajectory of sushi: Americans resisted eating raw fish at first, but now, it’s sold at almost every major supermarket in the country.
Empire State South’s Hugh Acheson, who once fried crickets on Top Chef, thinks it will take some time for insect-based dishes to go mainstream. “We’re not trying to have an ‘I dare you’ restaurant,” he says. “But change is in the air.” Atlanta has made some tiny steps: Sublime’s Kamal Grant sold doughnuts adorned with crickets, mealworms, and scorpions on Halloween a couple years ago, and last summer, a local entrepreneur named Akissi Stokes launched mealworm protein cookie company WUNDERgrubs. To see real change, though, Thomas says she must convince skeptics to overcome their preconceived notions about consuming what we usually want to squash. “I don’t think we need to be okay with cockroaches in the kitchen to enjoy delicacies like wax worms,” she says. “Not all insects are the same.”
Back at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, she gets Cobb County teacher Patrick Hydo to try real ants on a log. He turns to his six-year-old daughter, Ceci. “Will you take a bite if I take a bite?” They both do. “Did you like it, Ceci?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says with a smile and moves on to cricket-flour pumpkin spice cake.
This article originally appeared in our January 2018 issue.