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Symbiartic

The art of science and the science of art.

Do you prefer your maggots salty or sweet?

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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).

http://www.flickr.com/photos/moomoobloo/93526719/

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....

http://www.flickr.com/photos/moomoobloo/93523479/

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:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/moomoobloo/93523739/

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 Protein - The New Yorker Blog, Aug. 8, 2011

Grub: Eating Bugs to Save the Planet - The New Yorker, Aug. 15, 2011 (subscription needed to read the full article)

Locust Soufflé, Anyone? It’s a Start - NYTimes, Aug. 20, 2011

Bug Nuggets: Is the world ready for soy-glazed mealworms? - The Atlantic, Sept., 2011

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

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