Bugs on the Table

Friends gather around a table, lavishly set within the constraints of urban sophistication, for a dinner party with a theme. Some crack open the ruddy integument of a stout antennaed creature, feasting on its buttery flesh. One person spoons out something soft and green. “Tomalley,” they say, referencing its digestive gland. “A delicacy!” The object of their appetites has dark eyes that stare blankly at the ceiling.

Other friends place limbed bodies, lightly breaded and fried, on mounds of purple slaw, held between toasted slices of sourdough. They negotiate messy bites with sandwiches defended by a perimeter of barbed appendages. Hoping for a laugh, one guest mumbles to draw attention to the leg, dabbed with aioli, dangling from a corner of his mouth. His antics prompt eye-rolling and some light chuckling.

More reserved people gather around the safety of a punch bowl filled with iced crescent moon-shaped bodies. These they dip in a red sauce and suck the meat out from translucent leggy cuticles.

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The theme for this dinner party is crustaceans.

Religion is often looked to for answers as to the origin of taboos. Why is it okay to eat one group of arthropods, such as crustacea, while entomophagy—the eating of insects, which are equally arthropods—is shunned? But the Bible won’t help us understand why many of us will eat a soft-shell crab, but not a grasshopper:

“Whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you,” according to The Book of Leviticus. “Yet these you may eat among all the winged insects: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. These of them you may eat: the locust in its kinds, and the cricket in its kinds, and the grasshopper in its kinds. But all other winged insects are detestable to you.”

In summary: Eat fish, but not shellfish. Locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, and the like are A-OK, but don’t eat ants, flies, or moths, as those are detestable.

I’ve met plenty observant Jews who don’t eat shellfish, but can’t recall a bar mitzvah spread that included locusts. Christians generally exempt themselves from Levitican rules, and yet among them, bug-eating is a dare encased in lollipop, drizzled in chocolate, or drowned in alcohol. The Quran doesn’t expressly admonish insect-eating, but it does vaguely prohibit eating that which is “unclean,” leaving the decision open to personal interpretation and cultural bias.

For the origins of taboo, the science-minded will look to anthropology for patterns of human behavior and evolutionary biology for likely explanations. And here’s where we have to confront ourselves as among the insectivores.

The majority of humans have (intentionally) eaten insects, and we’ve been doing it for a very long time.

David Greybeard was a chimpanzee who became famous when in 1960 Jane Goodall observed him making and using a tool. At once, tool-use was no longer a defining behavior of humans. In terms of the origins of human entomophagy, the highlight of this event was Greybeard’s goal. His tool, a thin twig stripped of leaves, functioned as dual harvesting implement and eating utensil for termites.

Dr. Julie Lesnik of Wayne State University’s department of anthropology studies human evolution from the vantage provided by a 30-foot-tall termite mound. She cites simple bone tools of the hominid Australopithecus robustus in southern Africa from 1.7 million years ago. Researchers trying to decipher the use of the tools made their own and used them for a variety of caveman-y activities to compare the wear and tear seen in the fossilized tools with that incurred by their modern equivalents. Scraping hides, digging tubers, pounding fruits and seeds, stripping bark—none of these activities made the new bone tools of the researchers look worn like those of A robustus. But digging into termite mounds did. Evidence of ancient insect foraging addresses a previous conundrum. Adhering to the rule “you are what you eat,” skeletons of pre-human apes have chemical signals that point to a diet rich in animal tissue, despite their lack of tools for hunting large game. Insects, easily harvested with simple digging tools, are a likely explanation.

That apes value insects as a food choice isn’t surprising. Aside from the ones that sting, bite, or eject noxious chemicals, insects pose relatively low risk in harvesting. Insects that don’t fly well— grasshoppers or cicadas come to mind—are relatively easy to catch. Large insects, like many beetles and giant water bugs, or that tend to congregate as termites do by the millions in social colonial mounds, offer a payoff that is rich in essential amino acids and fats. Insects are also rich in chitin, an indigestible carbohydrate that makes up arthropod exoskeletons. Once passed, this fiber became incorporated into coprolites, or fossilized feces, providing evidence of past human diets. Insect exoskeletons have been found in human coprolites going back thousands of years from across North America.

The unfolding example from North America is that insecteating is a particular European aversion that explorers and conquerors brought with them as they stormed the planet, encountering peoples who had routinely eaten insects for millennia. Three examples highlight the sentiment:

Hudson Bay Company mountain man Peter Skene Ogden wrote an 1826 journal entry describing food of a tribe he encountered near the Great Salt Lake, including an oily dish that was “filled with ants,” and locusts stored as winter provisions. Ogden concluded “on this food these poor wretches drag out an existence.”

European pioneers saw Native Americans across the American West harvesting Mormon Crickets. Writing in his diary Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878, Major Howard Egan witnessed one cricket drive whereby the insects were corralled toward trenches filled with straw. As the multitudes of crickets hopped into the trenches, the straw was set ablaze. Egan describes the aftermath, trenches “half full” of charred crickets, which were gathered into baskets. That evening, dining with the Native Americans, Egan was offered “a cake of black bread about 2 inches thick.” After learning that the bread was made of ground charred crickets, he passed it to Egan Jack, his travel companion, and asked for pine nut bread, but eventually settled for cracking and eating pine nuts. Jack praised the cricket-flour bread as delicious as the sweet cakes made by the “white woman.” Egan conceded, writing “Well, I am willing to take his word for it, as otherwise I might squirm a little.”

Ephydra hians is a small fly that lays its eggs in alkaline lakes of the Great Basin, where the larvae develop. In his travelogue Up and Down California in 1860-1864, William Brewer observed members of a Paiute tribe harvesting great piles of the larvae that had washed up along the shores of Mono Lake following a mid- July storm. “The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernel remains, like a small yellow grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste, and if one were ignorant of its origin, it would make fine soup.”

Abundant and Earth-Friendly

Surely these sentiments were shared by European explorers who encountered Australian aboriginal enjoying toasted witchetty grubs, the meaty larvae of moths; or mopane worms, the grubs of moths fried crisp in parts of central and southern Africa; or giant water bugs sold in markets across southeast Asia; or the varieties of ants, eaten cooked or raw across South America. The list goes on. The United Nations estimates that 1900 species of insects are included in traditional diets of at least 2 billion people across the globe today.

Travel is still how many adventurous eaters sample insects for the first time. My own first encounter was on a street corner in Oaxaca, Mexico, where women in native dress sold me a bag of roasted chapulines, or grasshoppers. The experience was underwhelming, as the grasshoppers, likely from having sat around in the heat and humidity, were soft and leathery, barely enhanced by copious chili and lemon juice. But the experience was enough to get beyond my limitations. A few years later, during a cicada emergence outside of Pittsburgh, I fried some up with a daring family member. Cleveland experienced its own cicada emergence the summer of 2016. For a few weeks, millions of fat cicadas emerged from the ground, grew wings and clumsily flew around, reproduced (or not) and died. These 17-year-events are a bonanza of easy-picking nutrition for all sorts of animals. The next one will be in 2033, so you have some time to build up your courage. I recommend them sautéed in olive oil with garlic.

Some predict that the future of the western diet will include insects. Even as the world population tops 11 billion by century’s end, according to the UN, most of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited, over-exploited, or depleted. As the population grows, so too does their demand for meat. Already nearly 40% of the calories harvested from crops is fed to livestock, and over a quarter of the water people use goes into production of animal products. While lifelong vegans have a solid argument for abstaining from animal products, and entrepreneurial food technocrats are enthusiastic for the prospects of lab-grown meat, humans may need to keep bugs on the table.

Entomophagy has a new community of advocates, gastronomic pioneers, and explorers establishing insect microranches, developing recipes, writing cookbooks, and exploring the culinary options. One such organization is the Nordic Food Lab, which is exploring eating bee larvae. Honey is the one insect product canonized within the western diet. Might it be the gateway to eating bee larvae and therefore insects in general? Consider The Nordic Food Lab description of bee larvae taste: “egg and honey, and warm honeydew melon . . . fatty on the tongue and deeply savory with a lingering sweetness.”

Perhaps developing a sophisticated vernacular of haute cuisine around insects is a step toward accepting them as food. Perhaps . . . one day.

For now, I propose a toast. For those alive today who will see this century through. For our grandchildren and their grandchildren, who will inherit the table we are setting for them, let’s raise a glass: May your choice to eat insects be made around a lavish table surrounded by friends, rather than hunched over a termite mound working a crude bone tool.

If you’re curious about having your own insect party, find inspiration at EdibleCleveland.com, where there’s a recap of a bug taco party, Edible Cleveland-style.