In Western Civilization, particularly the American branch, we have a well-developed antipathy for any animal food that does not look like a chicken, cow, or salmon. “Bugs” in particular are traditionally regarded as vermin and not nutrition, because although mostly not harmful in themselves, historically some have been vectors of disease. In addition to those diseases with which they don’t inoculate you directly, some insects will carry other diseases from old source to new victim on their hairy little feet and through their disgusting habit of eating feces and carrion then regurgitating in the egg salad at the Fourth of July picnic. But there is far more to the invertebrate realm than ticks, flies, fleas, and mosquitoes. As many as 10,000,000 species exist of insects alone, with only about a million having been classified. Among those, the bad actors are well known but taint the reputation of the whole class.
“Bugs” from mollusks and myriad larvae to insects and arachnids have a real public relations problem with cultures that have been raised with the old testament health laws – very practical but very restrictive – as the basic tenants of wholesomeness. A man in a starvation situation may have to either lower his standards or broaden his horizons (depending on your point of view) to keep fueled. To sustain life, if you don’t have the food you love, then you’d better learn to love the food you have. It’s that simple.
The term entomophagy comes from the Greek entomos (insect[ed]) and phagein (to eat) and refers to the consumption of insects as food. As applied more broadly, it refers to eating other crustaceans as well, plus mollusks, as long as they are not found in the market, as are the socially accepted crabs, oysters and shrimps.
But there is very good news: a large segment of the Earth’s population is way ahead of the West when it comes to putting nutrition ahead of esthetics, and much of their advantage is purely in their perception. Why would we pay premium prices for crab and run from a spider? Why would we excitedly put on a special bib for a feast of crayfish but never do more than stomp on a cricket? Or take 10 minutes with wrinkled brow and pursed lips deciding on the best wine to go with that plate of escargot and go “eeewww” when we see slime trails of slugs across our back porch or over our nylon tent? Why was the North American practice of harvesting grasshoppers by burning meadows to simultaneously remove their wings and roast them regarded as truly aboriginal, but when John the Baptist lived on locusts and wild honey he was the ultimate survivorman?
Even a rhetorical question deserves an answer, and in this case it is simple and obvious: Our Western distaste and reluctance for bugs as food is because we have consistently confused the critter, which very seldom has any harmful effect as food, with the deadly microbes that may be carried by his distant cousin.
As this is written, half a day’s drive from my place was the site last year of one of the most deadly foodborne disease outbreaks in a generation, a listeriosis eruption that infected 146 and killed 32 across the United States, and the carrier was not insects or maggots but simply (ta-daa!) cantaloupe. Within sight of here are some of the most pristine mountain waters on our continent, and those pristine mountain waters are high-risk areas for giardia outbreaks. Are we to avoid any possible carrier of a disease – or the microbes that produce the disease itself? We must not confuse the disease with a possible carrier. I personally like water and cantaloupe, and folks all over the planet like insects and grubs and squishy things. We might benefit from their better discernment. Western avoidance of entomophagy coexists with the consumption of other invertebrates, such as crustaceans and mollusks, and is based solely on culture, not taste or food value.
Boiling your water or roasting your bugs isn’t that big a deal: you don’t eat a lot of raw chicken and pork, do you? It is only one’s background, certainly not logic, that makes it acceptable to eat raw oysters or steak tartare, both of which can carry either serious gastrointestinal diseases or parasites, but not to eat well-cooked grasshoppers. Although a bottle of hot sauce and a handful of lively crickets is a popular snack in southern Mexico, your preference might be to cook it all – but to eat it all if it is nutritious, and tasty. In any case, cooking, particularly roasting of hard-shelled insects, tends overall to improve the taste.
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Reprinted from Surviving on Edible Insects by Fred Demara with permission from Ogden Publications.