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Symbiartic

Symbiartic


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Do you prefer your maggots salty or sweet?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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There have been a whole slew of articles about the merits of eating bugs lately. The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have all run articles within the last month on various people in Europe and the US who are trying to reverse our deep aversion to entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs. Their arguments are quite sane, ranging from the environmental friendliness of “mini-livestock” (grasshoppers are 5 times more efficient at converting food to protein than cows; raising mealworms produces 10-100 times less greenhouse gas than raising pigs) to their widespread adoption in other cultures (80% of the world eats bugs – what’s wrong with us?) to the sheer good taste (“delicate, nutty” says Daniel Fromson for the Atlantic).

Bug Market

Personally, although I consider myself a foodie, eating bugs is waaaaaaay beyond any line I’ve drawn in the sand about what is and is not edible. When I visited China on a fossil hunting expedition, I was prepared to face the pancreas, tripe and cilantro dish I encountered on the first night. I didn’t flinch at the plate of whole salted shrimp (and when I say whole, I mean with heads, shells, legs, antennae and beady little eyes) that we popped in our mouths like peanuts, nor did I decline the insanely salty, foul-smelling, black-yolked 1000-year old egg I was served at a country home (which I sorely regretted for the next two weeks). But I literally had nightmares about eating bugs the whole trip. And the smell of roasting silk worms from the street vendors didn’t help. I just could not stomach the thought.

Clearly I’m not alone. All the recent bug-eating articles have interviewed dedicated, enthusiastic bug eaters and all of them have cited the West’s fear of eating insects as the major hurdle to overcome in introducing this form of protein to our diet. And who can blame us? In a society that has totally removed itself from the origin of its steak, why do we think we would respond favorably to seeing a recognizable critter on a skewer, head, eyes and all? While the hyper-rational and science-minded might look at a cladogram and say, “meh, bugs are just land lobsters… [CHOMP],” the rest of us might take a little more coaxing before we salivate at the thought of a katydid kebob.

So here’s where I think the dedicated entomophagists should get smart. Everyone’s heard of food porn, yes? I’m talking about the beautiful, seductive food photos that grace the pages of food magazines and food blogs making you salivate over things you’d never dreamed of… zucchini pie? Sounds great. Bean brownies? Yes, please. Cricket souffle? Erm….

IMG_3263

But wait! I think one photographer is onto something here. While most photos of bugs look, well… buggy, there is one photo in the recent barrage of bug-eating articles that could change the course of bug food forever. I couldn’t get through The New Yorker’s maze of image rights so, tragically, I can’t post the image here (yet!) but take a second to check out the leading image on this article at The New Yorker. It’s a plucky little grasshopper peeking out of a muffin, innocently holding out a raspberry for you to sample. I love it. It makes me laugh. And while I would never eat my first grasshopper like this:

IMG_3267

I just might take a timid little bite out of the back end of The New Yorker’s grasshopper muffin. Another spot that has alternately appealing and appalling images of bug cuisine is here. Trust the Japanese to make mating worms look appetizing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the power of imagery is great. If the environmentalists and entomophagy fans want the rest of us to jump on board, they need to harness the power of good food photography. Take a page out of New Yorker photographer Hans Gissinger’s book!

Image credits:
All images courtesy of Mitchell Slep. Thanks, Mitch!

A Bug-Buffet of Articles:

Insects or Hot Dogs, It’s Just ProteinThe New Yorker Blog, Aug. 8, 2011
Grub: Eating Bugs to Save the PlanetThe New Yorker, Aug. 15, 2011 (subscription needed to read the full article)
Locust Soufflé, Anyone? It’s a StartNYTimes, Aug. 20, 2011
Bug Nuggets: Is the world ready for soy-glazed mealworms?The Atlantic, Sept., 2011

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at www.kalliopimonoyios.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Tommy L 11:46 pm 09/1/2011

    The problem with most insect-based food at the moment is, as you pointed out, in the presentation and how they look “buggy”. The way those dishes are arranged makes it overtly obvious that they are insects, that they are weird (to that odd non-bug eating 20% of the world). They scream “It’s bugs! BBBUUGGGSSS!!!! Crazieeeee!!!”. Whereas the best approach is to just normalize it. Take for example, that last photo of a grasshopper dangling out of someone’s mouth – imagine if that’s a sardine, or a baby carrot, or a chicken wing – who eats like that? No, only when you are eating insects – because it is “weird” – “Oh look at me, I’m eating a *gasp* bug! Me so crazy!”. Most people don’t get that “yuck” reaction out of seeing a seafood platter filled with shrimps or prawns – and superficially, they’re pretty similar to insects. So if we want insects to become an acceptable food item (in our culture anyway), we need to *normalize* it.

    It is possible to make insects look appetizing. Throw in some greenery and garnish, put some slices of tomatoes or citrus. Imagine a dessert dish of cooked grubs arranged in a circle, their heads facing inward, with some whipped cream and a cherry in the middle where their heads meet, drizzled with lines of chocolate, and sprinkled with walnut pieces. Or those big waterbugs, fried in batter, place on a bed on lettuce, with shredded carrots and lemon slices on the side – like how they serve up batter-fried prawn tails. I’m sure if you have a plate with just a pile of hotdog sausages, a lot of people won’t find that appetizing either (though I’m sure there are some who do).

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  2. 2. SLW-L 11:59 am 09/2/2011

    Repulsive. Vegetarian sources of protein are plentiful in developed countries so I really don’t understand the point of eating bugs if the goal is being environmentally friendly (which is the way it’s angled in most articles I’ve run across on this topic). In fact, discussing the concept of eating bugs to reduce meat consumption is only going to turn the general public AWAY from reconsidering their carnivorous habits, in my opinion. I wish this topic would quickly fade out of public consciousness before more damage is done. Awareness that well-prepared vegetarian and vegan meals are delicious, not bland and unsatisfying, will do far more for the cause than amusing photos of edible insects.

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  3. 3. Luna_the_cat 12:02 pm 09/8/2011

    Here’s what I (literally) can’t stomach: I draw the line at eating things that still have their intestines and intestinal contents IN them. I prefer my food un-pre-digested, please!

    Now, if it were possible to gut the locusts or maggots or what-have-you before I ate them, I’d eat them. But it isn’t exactly practical, and I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s less to do with eating bugs, more to do with eating unexcreted bug poop. :¬P

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