There is something both weird and wonderful about watching the poised and elegant Nicole Kidman lift a silver cloche, deftly maneuver a pair of chopsticks to pick up a squirming blue hornworm from the dish, and gently place that worm on her tongue. After each of four such gastronomic performances, Kidman laughs lightly and proclaims the worms, crickets, and grasshoppers to be “extraordinary” or “amazing” or “exquisite.”
The weirdness is not in the fact that she is eating insects – a couple of billion people around the world eat insects on a regular basis – or that Ms. Kidman, at least to my knowledge, is a particularly weird person. Nor are the larvae and bugs weird. In their own way, these are satisfying snacks, like shrimp or chicken wings. As any fashion designer or veterinarian knows, weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. A Klingon digging his fingers into a writhing bowl of gagh? That’s normal. But a beautiful Hollywood actress inserting a squirming larva between her lips, with the soft, satisfied, slightly erotic sounds she makes as she eats, and the Stepford-wife smile? That’s weird.
Having spent a few decades looking for ways to kill arthropods that transmit diseases from animals to people, I have mixed feelings about eating bugs. Insect bits in food are considered by public health authorities to be an aesthetic flaw, rather than a health hazard. They are present in pretty much everything we eat. If you don’t see them, they’re not a problem. Still, whole bugs? In 2010, in Kunming, China, a friend served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads. My friend said he preferred them chewier. I never thought about them much after that. My son raises bees, and I love the fine vintage honeys they produce. But eating locusts and insect larvae? Not part of my ethnic heritage.
Then, in about 2013, the notion that entomophagy (eating insects) would solve the intractable problems of climate change and world hunger, swept through both the academic and popular imagination. The Food and Animal Organisation of the UN organized international conferences on the subject. A new scholarly journal, Insects as Food and Feed was launched from Wageningen, the academic incubator of this new movement.
Chef René Redzepi of the trend-setting restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, announced that “insects will solve the world’s food problems”, and many who followed his lead, such as Billy Kwong in Sydney, Australia, seemed to be equally enthusiastic. When I dug deeper, however, I discovered that what Redzepi and his culinary acolytes were doing was something I could support whole-heartedly: promoting cuisine based on local resources, which included insects. I couldn’t afford to eat at Noma, but at Billy Kwong, I needed a flashlight to find the insect traces in the wanton.
Beyond the headlines and local food movement, however, I discovered something more complex and interesting: insects were being raised to recycle food waste, to produce bar snacks, fortify energy bars, help poor Laotian women provide protein for their families, and to create interesting foods at gourmet restaurants and low-end pubs.
Le Festin Nu, in Paris, offered me tapas that included palm weevil larvae, locusts, and buffalo worms. In Vientiane, at a karaoke bar, crickets fried up with garlic and lemon went perfectly with a tankard of beer. In London, at Archipelago, I dined on Summer Nights (pan-fried chermoula crickets, quinoa, spinach, and dried fruit), Love-Bug Salad (baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chili, lemongrass, and garlic), Bushman’s Cavi-Err (caramel mealworms, blinis, coconut cream, and vodka jelly), and Medieval Hive (brown butter ice cream, honey and butter caramel sauce, and a baby bee drone). In Japan, I hunted wild hornets in the mountains, swung nets at locusts under bridges, and fried silkworms at a sidewalk cooking lesson. In Tokyo, at a reading from my book The Origin of Feces, someone handed me a copy of the Japanese celebrity scandal magazine Friday, opened to an article celebrating the “charms of insect eating”. The article showed scantily clad girls drinking vodka and nibbling giant water bugs (‘toe-biters’, to the uninitiated), pickled and fried locusts, and the larvae of fried locusts and butterflies.
So when my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Public Bar and Restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, the “Kang Kong Worms” and “Salmon, Manuka Honey, and Black Ants” seemed almost normal. Of course, the Champagne helped.
Is all this wonderful? I think so. Is it weird? Just a bit. Will eating insects save the world? I think the jury is still out on that. But for me, viewing the world through the fractured stained glass of entomophagy, I have rediscovered this world as a wonder-filled and exciting place in which to be alive.
David Waltner-Toews is a Canadian epidemiologist, essayist, poet, fiction writer, veterinarian, and a specialist in the epidemiology of food and waterborne diseases, zoonoses and ecosystem health. He is the author of various books including Food, Sex and Salmonella: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick and Eat the Beetles! An Exploration into Our Conflicted Relationship with Insects.
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