Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Eating Bugs

Quito, 1954. My mother comes excitedly home from the market with a package of shrimp, the first she’s found since we arrived from Barcelona, where shrimp was only one of several marine species in our Sunday paella. She places the package in the sink and asks the indigenous maid, Maria—black braids, embroidered blouse, felt skirt—to wash them in preparation for cooking. Maria opens the package, takes one look at the contents, and runs out of the kitchen, her braids streaming behind her, screaming that those bugs in the sink are just like the bugs with many legs that you find curled up under a stone, and she would rather die than touch one, much less eat it. 

It’s my first lesson in gastronomic relativity, in which I realize that what we like to eat or can’t bear to even think of eating is determined more by where we come from than by the merits of the thing on our plate. Ecuador is replete with challenges to gastronomic provincialism. There is the Andean village where at dusk small flying beetles take to the air, and are chased by swarms of little boys who catch and eat them. “They are sweet,” they tell us, munching. And there is the Saturday afternoon ritual when native families sit in front of their houses ridding each other’s scalp of lice, which they eat--a practice that supposedly helps to protect them against typhoid. And in the Amazon basin, we are told, people hunt monkeys with blow guns and boil them whole…. 

In Spain, before we went to South America, everything that I ate was anatomically correct: small fish were served entire on my plate, and I don’t remember being grossed out by their fishy eyes looking up at me, or by the knee caps and hip joints of rabbits and chickens, or by the chicken’s comb, which my  grandmother used to save for me. 

But the years have changed me. Long before I became vegetarian I stopped eating chicken thighs, because I couldn’t bear the sight of all the muscles and tendons; then I stopped eating chicken breasts (those ribs!); and then I stopped eating chicken altogether. Now, wishing I had the energy and resourcefulness to be vegan, I make-do with vegetables and dairy products, with an occasional can of salmon or sardines to boost my protein intake. 

I recently read “Grub,” an article in the September 6 issue of The New Yorker about entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects. Given the expanding human population and the diminishing resources of the planet, insects offer an ecologically sustainable source of high-quality protein, so it becomes almost a moral duty for us all to support the companies that are working to make entomophagous cuisine available to the world at large—and that includes actually eating their products. 

This is something that I will happily do as long as I cannot tell what I am eating. That means no legs, no antennae, no compound eyes, no diaphanous wings, no chewy bits of exoskeleton. Give me bugs ground into anonymous, homogeneous powder, and I will ingest not only cute, small things like ants and ladybugs but Luna moths, tarantulas, locusts, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Shared by most Americans, this preference for bugs in powder form presents a problem for the “tiny livestock” industry, because insect protein, as you know if you’ve ever squashed a bug, is gooey instead of solid. But they’re working on it. 

Note that I haven’t said anything about flavor. But mix some insect powder with an egg substitute, dredge in bread crumbs, fry lightly in olive oil, and what’s not to like? I just celebrated Labor Day with a sad little vegetarian patty made of mostly beans and corn. After that, critter croquettes don’t sound half bad to me. 

No comments :

Post a Comment