“Disgusting. You might as well eat shit.”
That’s the comment I received from a follower on the I’m Gonna Cook That! Facebook page, in response to this picture:
In case you haven’t seen one before, that’s a cricket taco. It’s one of the specials this week at a local place called Comida. The boyfriend and I had been at a happy hour across the street at Great Divide for Big Brothers Big Sisters (I’ve been a big sister for a little over five years), and after a couple of beers each, we decided we’d better have something to eat before we headed home. I wanted tacos, and since we were so close to Comida it seemed like a logical choice. As we cozied up to the bar, we were handed the specials list. It included, among other things, those funky looking cricket tacos. I got a little giddy, not just as the prospect of trying something new, but at the very idea of a restaurant in Denver being willing to have anything to do with insects on their menu.
I won’t pretend it’s not a little weird. Our food culture in America, unlike many countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, still has a long way to go before we’ll collectively accept insects as anything other than a thing for which you call the exterminator. For most, finding a cricket in their food means promptly calling the waiter over to complain. Ordering a pile of them wrapped up in a couple of corn tortillas will probably seem “disgusting” to a lot of you for a long time to come. We’re just NOW getting somewhere with this whole Nose to Tail thing—finding ways to utilize every single bit of more commonly accepted proteins like pig or cow. So, I can’t say that commenter’s reaction was surprising. I will, however, take umbrage with her suggestion that eating insects is on the same level as eating… poo.
Insects, when collected and prepared correctly, are an amazing source of nutrition. Back in 2013, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization released a friendly little reminder that there are, in fact, nearly two thousand species of edible insects. A decent percentage of them have been a primary protein staple for several countries—36 in Africa, 11 in Europe, and 29 in Asia–for centuries. In a few of these places, locusts have been known to decimate entire crops, leaving those who directly depend on what can be grown for food little choice but to turn the locusts themselves into dinner. For them, that “disgusting” bug is literally what saves them from starvation (Holland, 2013).
A more recent report from the U.N.F.A.O. from January of this year informs us that, among other benefits, bugs can eat anything. That means utilizing them as a food crop, for humans or livestock, is far less expensive than say, feeding a head of cattle or a herd of pigs. They also use far less water, which is key in places where access to water is limited. Insects, in addition to being an excellent source of protein, also contain fatty acids at levels comparable to some fish, as well as zinc, magnesium, copper, iron, and fiber. They are also a lot less likely to give you a foodborne illness. We already use insects for everything from honey, to silk, to food and cosmetic dye (U.N.F.A.O., January 2016). Why doesn’t it make sense to exercise that same Nose to Tail approach that’s being used for animal protein sources?
Truth be told, some day we might all find ourselves dealing with a scarcity of animal protein as it becomes more and more challenging to support traditional agriculture. It’s possible that we’d have little choice but to adapt to a regular diet of insects and hydroponically grown veggies, regardless of how squeamish we might be. Also, not for nothing, but while we might not need to actually “eat shit,” burning it for warmth or utilizing it to fertilize the soil where we grow our food is conceivable, as well.
Look, I’m not saying anyone should feel bad if they looked at that picture of my taco and found it “icky.” I get it, I really do. We’re not used to it, and for a lot of people getting used to it might require circumstances that most of us are fortunate enough to have never encountered. But I am, and have always been, an adventurous eater, and knowing what I know about how other cultures practice entomophagy (the practice of eating insects), it’s never been all that far out of the realm of possibility that I’d find myself dining on some bugs one day.
Turns out, that day was Tuesday, March 22nd. For the record, they tasted just fine—nutty. They tend to take on the flavor of whatever they’re with, so in the case of that taco they tasted a lot like jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. Just crunchier, kinda like Rice Crispies. Also, yes, I’d absolutely eat them again.
Holland PUBLISHED May 14, 2013, J. S. (2013, May 14). U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130514-edible-insects-entomophagy-science-food-bugs-beetles/
United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization. (January 2016). The Contribution of Insects to Food Security, Livelihoods, and the Environment. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3264e/i3264e00.pdf