Updated: Sep 18, 2019
I had the best grilled salmon steak ever the other day. Charred just right. An appetizing shade of pink. Firm, but flaky. Buttery, not oily. Peppery, salty, lemony; seasoned to bring out the unique flavor of salmon without overwhelming it. There was no fishiness in this piece of fish. As I savored the last few bites I tried to remember when, and why, and how salmon entered my consideration set. I haven’t always enjoyed salmon. And I’m still not crazy about smoked salmon, or the idea of stripping away the flesh of a freshly caught fish to chew on the nutrition-dense skin the way grizzlies do. I can’t recall the journey to relishing a piece of grilled salmon. Maybe it started with a bite, smothered in a delicious sauce, off a parent’s plate in return for my favorite dessert. Maybe I associate it with a good time that had nothing to do with what was on the plate. Or perhaps I tried salmon instead of steak, to start cutting out red meat. It got me thinking about how, and how hard it can be to adopt a new food. Could I ever imagine eating insects with the same relish, for example? Could you?
Why wonder about eating insects, let alone savoring them? A lot more of us in America, maybe all humans may very well have to add bugs to our repertoire to survive as a species on this planet. The chorus is getting louder around the belief that humans will run out of things to eat in the not-too-distant future if we don’t make sustainability our ultimate objective. Insects can, and maybe should be part of our diets everywhere.
Insects are plentiful. Are they ever plentiful. I’m sitting outside on a warm, summer day, and insects are everywhere I look; aflight and afoot, buzzing, inching, or spidering along with purpose. And how many varied millions more out of sight under my garden, burrowing and boring, recycling and re-nourishing the earth for us?
Insects are rich in essential amino acids, omega-3 fats, iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. They are a good source of lean protein, too, and farming insects would have an environmental footprint orders of magnitude smaller than what it takes to package a pound of another great source of protein; ground chuck. On top of all that, certain bugs are apparently tasty enough to be delicacies!
A New York Times article from September 7th, 2018, entitled, Why Aren’t We Eating More Insects, cites that two billion people around the world already know the value and virtues of eating insects. According to the article by Ligaya Mishan, beetles and caterpillars are the most popular among some 2,100 species of edible insects. Termites are eaten live or dry-roasted in Kenya. Weevil grubs are enjoyed grilled (they caramelize nicely) over an open fire in Peru. And the larvae of red weaver ants are prized in Thailand for their fruity crunch. So why is eating insects something short of taboo in the U.S.? After all, some of us do eat things in this country that make others of us squeamish or even outright revolted.
Some explanations come from the same NYT article. Many of our Northern and Western European ancestors didn’t take to bugs to begin with because there were far fewer insects across most of Europe, compared with the tropics, and many of the insect species that survived the series of ice age eras were smaller too, which made it less worth the effort of capturing them. A certain reading of the Bible made early Christians frown on eating insects, and our European forbearers also associated insects with disease and uncleanliness, which squashed insects as a food source. My guess is these factors also squashed whatever appeal eating insects might have held for those who learned of the pleasures of eating bugs from other cultures and colonies during Europe’s Age of Discovery.
Simply put, insects are “disgusting” – in the original meaning of the word, “the opposite of something to be tasted” – to many Americans, says Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist specializing in perception and emotion. She too claims there are several reasons why we don’t cotton to bugs. She believes that the way insects look, and the way they move, triggers revulsion, even fear. The way some insects slither or ooze reminds us of bodily fluids, which, we as adults anyway, don’t consider putting in our mouths. A slug isslimy and shaped like feces. Hardly something we would consider putting on the shopping list.
All that said, Herz says that “disgust is the instinct we have to learn.” Smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and textures aren’t inherently disgusting. As we become acculturated, we learn to classify things as disgusting, and once we do, we are almost hardwired to find them disgusting unless and until the situation really forces us to reconsider. It’s easy to find examples in your own experience. Growing up, I spent stretches of time in a place where the use of underarm deodorants was not widespread, so body odor was not considered disgusting. No one commented on it, and I stopped noticing the smell after a time. On the other hand, here in the U.S., the whiff of body odor on just one person in a large crowd is palpable and repulsive. We’ve been so conditioned to use deodorants that it verges on a social contract you don’t want to break. But…if disgust is programmed, it can also be reprogrammed, so there’s hope for the culinary impresarios as well as sustainability advocates hoping to work insects into our diet.
Reprogramming our associations with insects means changing the long-standing cultural narrative around eating bugs. On a recent episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, Rachel Herz suggested we change the narrative from (I’m paraphrasing here) “It’s a food of last resort for people who are very different from us, and who don’t have the privilege we do to choose otherwise,” to “We’re saving the Planet.” This seems like an approach that would gain traction, certainly among key influencers in our society, but also among a growing number of Americans in general. A complimentary strategy could be to tap into the craving for experiences, especially among Millennials and Gen Y. Celebrity chefs in this country are starting to experiment with bugs. That will start cascading some level of curiosity and acceptance among the more daring of us.
Still. Reaching for a crystallized grasshopper that looks like it’s still poised to hop out of the bowl, or a hissing cockroach that’s been silenced-but-still-menacing on a skewer is asking a lot from most of us. The biggest challenge to making insects “gustable” would appear to be how to plate or package a bug so that it doesn’t look like one; exactly. A beef hamburger doesn’t look like a cow, nor does a steak. Sliced turkey doesn’t threaten to gobble. And a piece of grilled salmon doesn’t stare at you with a jaundiced eye.
It has to start with re-presenting insects to our senses, and that starts with making the insect you’re going to put in your mouth visually acceptable, if not appealing, since we do eat with our eyes first. The purveyors of cricket powder and flour – it’s a tiny, but growing market - know this. Any semblance of an insect – antennae, exoskeleton, or wriggling legs -- has been ground into dust, so the energy bar made with this powder is cricket-y in brand name only. I would think, though, that we need to be able to ingest insects in forms other than powder for insects to be a staple. Not sure that energy bars, pancakes, salad seasoning, and sourdough bread go far enough.
Will you ever elevate insects to the realm of enjoyable foods? Your eyes do deceive you, so maybe there’s a way. Packaged food scientists and menu developers cater to your deeply held associations using color, shape, and visual context. In her book, Why You Eat What You Eat, Rachel Herz cites research which shows that foods that are deeper shades of red appear sweeter, and that sweeter is generally preferred. Rounded foods, and round plates, also cue sweetness. Green is seen as sour before a wedge of a Granny Smith apple passes your lips, while yellow food evokes happy thoughts. And, a composed, ordered presentation looks tastier than a messy plate. Evolving technology will continue to provide tools to help add visual appeal, like augmented reality systems that transform the look of what’s actually on your plate.
If you can get yourself to reach for an insect, perhaps properly presented with the help of these tricks of the trade, and put it in your mouth, chances are you will be pleasantly surprised. These are familiar flavors and textures. The crunch of a snack chip or taco. The melt-in-your-mouth pleasure of caramel. You might start to believe that an insect is something you might even relish one day. Maybe the bitter fruit of necessity will become a delicacy.