Insects and Arachnids
The bugs we eat
Fried wild-caught dragon flies and spider rolls featuring rose-haired tarantulas, katydid-and-grilled-cheese sandwiches and tacos stuffed with grasshoppers: The variety of foods laced with insects and spiders available in the United States and Europe today — when you go looking for them — is considerable. The venues in which they may be found are equally varied, ranging from upscale restaurants to street-side food carts and science-museum bug festivals. Entomophagy is on the rise and generating excitement.
I've not been adventuresome enough to try anything like tarantulas for lunch. One spring day in 2014, though, a package showed up for me with a return address in Austin, Texas, and I knew it was time to take an entomophage's baby step: I was about to eat crickets. Or at least, cookies with crickets baked into them.
At the time, I didn't yet know that crickets are "the latest nerd cuisine trend," as Xeni Jardin puts it. I had noticed in the media a small but dedicated band of entomophagy enthusiasts, including scientists, chefs, and writers who sing the praises of insect-eating. These enthusiasts aim not only at the exotic-food eaters among us — those who eagerly seek live octopus or pig uterus — but also adults with more conservative palates, and children who might think it's just that cool to swallow bugs. One insect-cuisine champion, Robert Nathan Allen of Little Herds, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that promotes insect farming, kindly sent me the cookies, which he had baked himself.
I knew that eating the crickets wouldn't count as my first episode of insect ingestion. It's just that all previous instances came about by accident, a by-product of the nature of our food supply. The statistics make insectivores of us all: the FDA deems it perfectly acceptable for peanut butter to host thirty insect fragments per hundred grams, and twice that amount is allowed in a comparable serving of chocolate. Considering how much of these two foods I've downed over the decades, it's clear that insects were no strangers to my digestive tract, even before the cookies' arrival.
Likewise, anyone who regularly eats fresh vegetables ingests an occasional mini-animal-protein-package along with their intended meal. Once, sharing dinner with my mother in a senior-living facility dining room here in Virginia, I moved a leaf of lettuce across my salad plate and was startled to spot a large beetle nestled calmly in the greens. Noting with some relief the intact nature of its body — no ingestion of any bit of this insect had occurred — I planned to quietly ask the serving staff for a replacement salad. This scheme was thwarted when my mother, a confirmed insectophobe of eighty years, caught sight of the beetle and — I'll fall back on the word "ruckus" to convey what happened next.
Deliberate ingestion of insects, however, felt to me wholly different. It's not that the cookies were repulsive in appearance or made me squeamish; they looked like, well, cookies. The crickets were baked into small, round, chocolate-chipped-studded shapes. The ingredients, save one, were entirely unsurprising: potato flour, brown rice flour, tapioca flour, coconut flour, sugar, brown sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, baking soda, chocolate chips, and salt — plus cricket flour.
The cookies tasted good. I can't say they rivaled the best chocolate chip cookies ever made, because those are baked at Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck, New Jersey. But that's, in a way, exactly the point: Those New Jersey cookies are delicious to me in part because they come from my home state, indeed from Monmouth County where I grew up, and even more specifically, from a market, now on tourists' as well as locals' radar, that offers everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to breads, pies, and cookies. Those chocolate chip cookies were the ones my parents brought to me when I ventured twenty-eight miles northwest to attend Douglass College, and felt homesick for familiar things. Now, four decades later, when I travel from Virginia back home to New Jersey, a visit to Delicious Orchards is a high point for my own family; those still-perfect cookies unlock treasured memories.
The foods each of us loves, and the foods we love to hate, are about so much more than flavor — a theme central to this book. Many of us eat pigs and cows without a second thought but blanch at the idea of consuming chimpanzees — or insects.
For Little Herds to offer insects in familiar cookie shapes, mixed with chocolate chips (which might contain their own insect fragments!), makes good marketing sense. That's the logic as well at a cricket farm in Youngstown, Ohio, established in 2014 as the first in the United States to raise crickets specifically for human consumption. For entomophagy novices, cricket cookies — or, in the case of the Youngstown operation, cricket chips — may be far more palatable than food items that feature recognizable insect parts. It worked for me, anyway. To the extent that I can disentangle all the cultural overlays from the actual taste of the cookies, I would evaluate them as appealing, with a specific flavor I find hard to describe: slightly nutty, maybe, with a granular texture that I am guessing comes from the cricket flour.
Still, I'm sympathetic to the shivery reactions some people may voice to the practice of insect-eating, or even to day-to-day encounters with insects. As disappointing as I find this in myself, I'm less than calm around some of the bigger flying insects or spiders with large leg spans. It's not so much that I fear stings or bites as that I experience a visceral response deep in my nervous system that compels me to put distance between myself and the small animal in question. The scientific notion of "here's a creature interesting to observe and learn about" comes to me eventually, but on a sort of cognitive delay: the shiver comes first. (I still manage to rescue even the most formidable spiders trapped in our house and deposit them outdoors, but it requires some deep breathing on my part.)
This response makes evolutionary sense — our ancestors who were cautious around stinging, biting creatures may have survived longer and (most importantly) enjoyed greater reproductive success, and today we are dealing with a carryover effect. In another way, though, it is very strange. Insects, mostly harmless to us, are everywhere, even in our modern sheltered-from-nature lives. When fifty homeowners in or near Raleigh, North Carolina, volunteered their houses for an entomology study in 2012, the results were striking: over ten thousand specimens were collected in total — some living, some deceased. More than a hundred species of insects, spiders, centipedes and millipedes, and crustaceans like pill bugs were often found in a single home. Flies and beetles, ants, book lice, moths, silverfish, stinkbugs, cockroaches, cobweb spiders, and of course dust mites were among the common inhabitants. Crickets were less common, and bedbugs were absent entirely. The researchers who carried out the work, led by Michelle Trautwein from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Rob Dunn and Matthew Bertone from North Carolina State University, concluded that many of us live inside a veritable, insect-favoring natural history museum. Shouldn't we habituate after a while?
Millions of people around the world do seek out insects and regularly, intentionally consume them. They do not pluck bugs from under the bed or the dusty attic, of course, but forage for sources of fresh protein and other nutrients in the wild or purchase prepared insects or insect flour at traditional markets. With a little help from anthropology, we may identify a global panoply of flavors that insects can provide to our palates.
Entomophagy around the world
Humans eat over sixteen hundred species of insects. "The Western abhorrence of eating insects is unusual on a global scale," note naturalist David Raubenheimer and anthropologist Jessica M. Rothman. Westerners may clamor for honey without fully recognizing that when ingesting it they are consuming regurgitated bee products, but people in many countries consciously embrace a wide variety of bugs as food. Raubenheimer and Rothman's cross-cultural report on entomophagy is stuffed full of intriguing data and forms the basis for my discussion of insect-eating patterns in this section.
The percentage of dietary protein people acquire from insects varies widely from population to population: up to 26 percent seasonally in parts of the Amazon region and perhaps as high as 64 percent in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet it would be a mistake to connect entomophagy only with people who live in so-called undeveloped societies. The traditional diet in Japan and Thailand, for example, still includes insects. Thailand is a fascinating place for entomophiles. Regional preferences exist for different insects, but the giant water bug is eaten across the nation. Crickets are popular too and may be offered for commercial sale in abundant numbers. "400 families in two villages," Raubenheimer and Rothman report, "produce 10 metric tons of crickets in the peak production period, both for the domestic market and export."
Crickets are one thing. The idea of eating a giant water bug seems far more formidable to me, though I recognize this judgment is again a culturally grounded one. The Entomophagy Wiki project offers a video of a person called Bug Nomster who consumes on-camera a "massive" water bug, boiled and dehydrated and sold commercially in a silver pouch. Bug Nomster first bites into the posterior end of the intact bug, then decides to remove the legs and wings in order to get at the interior meat. He tastes "a hint of apple" but decides overall that the bug, in this desiccated form, offers too little meat in too much shell, and concludes that fresh-fried water bugs would be preferable. Beyond the lukewarm review, the video prompted me to wonder if consuming a water bug at home differs so very much from cracking into a lobster at a fine restaurant? Many people might covet the lobster as a delicacy but reject the water bug as a disgusting snack. Yet both these animals (and crab and shrimp, and insects too) are arthropods — animals with a shell, a segmented body, and jointed limbs. (Full disclosure: I don't eat lobster, thus this bit of comparative reasoning implies no necessity of my consuming water bugs for consistency's sake!) Bug Nomster's comment about the giant water bug's shell illustrates a key point. Amid a great deal of cross-cultural variability — including whether insects are eaten as staples, as fallback foods in hard times, or as delicacies — one general rule is that people prefer insects at the peak size of their life cycle and those with the lowest proportion of exoskeleton. (The water bug, in its prepackaged form, succeeds on the first point but loses points on the second.) These preferences make good sense, as larger-package protein makes the energy expended in acquiring and processing insects more worthwhile, and the exoskeleton or shell must be distressingly crunchy for some tastes — a factor I didn't have to contend with when eating cookies made with cricket flour. The exoskeletons were in the flour, to be sure, but so finely ground that the crunch factor was entirely absent.
When I lived in a national park in Kenya in order to carry out my research, I observed the behavior not only of baboons but of tourists, most of whom quested to see the "Big Five" — lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros. I was thus amused to learn that there is also a "Big Five" of the entomophagy world. Of all insects, species in five orders — Coleoptera (beetles), Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees), Isoptera (termites), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, and katydids) — show up most regularly in human diets. These insects tend to occur in abundance, often (except for Coleoptera) in large clusters, and are rich sources of protein, fat, and micronutrients, although species variation in nutritional content is considerable.
Entomophagy, as it catches on outside traditional cultural practices, builds on some of these patterns, yet there's an edgy new element to some of the current fascination. After all, Bug Nomster isn't in Thailand partaking of the local cuisine: he's showcasing his experimental entomophagy for, presumably, a heavily Western viewing audience. His fans include serious food enthusiasts — chefs and their customers who crave new dining experiences and work hard to bring them about.
Dining on escamoles is a good example. Often referred to as giant ant eggs, they are more correctly understood as ant larvae (species Liometopum apiculatum). In Mexico, escamoles were popular in Aztec times and are still highly prized. Looking a bit like pine nuts, they are often described as slightly nutty in flavor. (Are most insects nut-flavored, like my cookie-embedded crickets?) These larvae can't be bought easily in the United States. When writer Dana Goodyear shadowed Laurent Quenioux, a French-born chef now cooking in California, the pair sought escamoles from Mexico. Quenioux "knew a guy," Goodyear writes, "who knew a guy who would bring them across the border from Tijuana; we simply had to drive down to a meeting place on the US side and escort them back." In other words, the delicacies were smuggled into the country. Once at the pickup site, Quenioux exchanged a $100 bill for a half kilo of frozen larvae. This shipment ended up as part of a tiny dish graced also by Japanese noodles; at other times, Quenioux may prepare a corn tortilla with escamoles among the ingredients. Part of the zest with which Quenioux cooks these dishes stems, Goodyear makes clear, from the illicit nature of the goods — and a profile of Quenioux in LA Weekly (as well as Goodyear's book) makes it plain that his smuggling has been a fairly routine practice.
A major report on future prospects for entomophagy, released in 2013 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), notes that tamping down sensationalism when promoting insect-eating is a worthy goal. It's a fine line between sensationalism and pure excitement when it comes to any cuisine, I admit: does Bug Nomster cross the line into sensationalism by posting online a video of himself biting off the end of a massive water bug? Are the smuggled escamoles as much about the thrill of the illicit as they are about flavor? While it's hard to know, it is nice to visit restaurants that incorporate insects into their menus without hype and hoopla.
Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington, DC, is just such a restaurant. Stepping inside on a cool June evening in 2014, my friend Stephen Wood and I were immersed in the colors and smells of Oaxaca, Mexico. Oyamel is the name of the fir tree native to central Mexico where monarch butterflies rest upon migrating from the United States and Canada, and the décor had a lepidopteran theme: the glass door at the entrance was studded with transparent red, yellow, and pink butterflies, and butterfly mobiles hung from the ceiling.
But it wasn't butterflies that Stephen and I had come to sample. Our quest focused on chapulines, soft tacos stuffed with grasshoppers. Taking our order, the waitress noted our luck: the grasshoppers sometimes get held up coming through customs from Mexico, but that night they were readily available. Stephen and I ordered a number of small, tapas-like dishes, and when the chapulines arrived, I saw insect body parts right away. A delicate grasshopper leg tumbled onto the table when I raised the taco to my mouth.
So long to the land of cricket cookies. Here was the crunch factor at last! To our mild frustration, neither Stephen nor I could summon the adequate vocabulary to convey the grasshoppers' taste. What stayed with me was the sound (the crunch), the texture (many insects to chew), a smoky taste, and a spicy heat, which stemmed not from the insects but from the guacamole. Hot foods don't agree well with me, so I contented myself with eating only part of the grasshopper taco, then moving on to entirely delicious Mexican potatoes.
As I dined at Oyamel, I pondered some questions not often addressed by fans of entomophagy, whether they write popular books or government reports, or make edible art in the kitchen. What happens when we view insects through the lens of "animals we eat," as we do for chickens or pigs? What do we know about insect intelligence, personality, and sentience?
The ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and crickets that appear in prepared edibles are not much like the other animals we will consider in this book. They don't utilize underwater tools like octopuses or exhibit easily recognizable (to us) emotions like joy or grief as do farm animals. To include insects in a book that also embraces our supersmart, emotional, highly individual closest living relatives the chimpanzees takes us from one end of the thinking-and-feeling animal continuum way over to the other.