Are we Showboating Edible Insects?

There’s nothing I love more than discussing emerging issues with members of the ento community. A few weeks ago, I received a slightly critical comment to my blog post on The Last Man on Earth: Crickets and the Media.

A man named Gregory wrote:

“We want people to embrace eating insects, but apparently it is too irresistible to showboat.

Just look at your own website. Pictures of sticking an entire critter in your mouth are meant to evoke emotion. Imagine the beef industry highlighting pictures of folks biting bloody hunks out of a walking calf.

Folks need to learn to just say no to showcasing these images. I just read an article in which the camera crew bet the child of the interviewed family $5 to eat a live bug on camera. They should have declined.

Media knows how to excite their audience, which isn’t the best for a fledgling industry.”

Ouch. Well… that was my immediate reaction. I think anyone being called out for perpetuating the show-boating of an industry trying to make a place for itself on grocery store shelves would feel a little embarrassed about this sort of comment. It really got me thinking – how does my OWN blog reflect my values and beliefs about how entomophagy should be presented and marketed to the world. Heck, what ARE my beliefs about this matter?

Girl Eats Spider

I’ve spoken to people with widely differing views on the matter. Greg Sewitz, founder of Exo, compared the adoption of crickets and other insects to the adoption of sushi in society:

“Essentially, before 1960 nobody in the US had ever tried sushi, and if they heard about it they thought it was gross. Basically, this chef created the California roll which he hid the raw fish by putting rice on the outside, putting in avocado, raw tuna, and that’s what sort of led the adoption of sushi around the US. People were more willing to try it and realize they like it. It sort of spread… they saw celebrities eating it in Hollywood and it became a sexy thing. That is a similar strategy that we are trying to use to spread insect eating.”

But he makes a point to clarify:

“We don’t want to turn this into a novelty item. The narrative would be “Look at these celebrities eating these gross foods.” It would be cool to see celebs eating our bars or other snacks so that people would want to try this new, trendy, healthy, bar on a larger scale. If someone sees a celebrity eating a bar, they might also buy the bar – not because they are fans of eating bugs, but because the bar is trendy. We want to avoid anything that feels fear-factory.”

Sewitz was the first one to really drive home the fear that exists in the industry that crickets might forever stay in the “novelty” department. I asked Susan, founder of EntoMarket, for her thoughts on Sewitz’s fears and she mused:

“Well, I hope he is wrong! We have a cricket granola that has become very popular. And some of our own flavored roasted mealworms and crickets have been bought regularly as snacks. The granola is great because you can sprinkle it on yogurt or consume plain. I’ve seen people buy the whole insect products just as much as they are the energy bars. I was concerned about that too – I don’t want to hear people say, “Oh, I ate a cricket bar once” and then drop it… but I think the media our community is pushing will really make the difference. If kids can get used to this… they’re the future. Kids will make the difference. By the time these kids become teenagers, eating bugs will become just second nature to them.”

So Susan is relying more on the normalization of insect-eating to the next generation. If we keep disguising what these kids are eating, will insects become normalized? David George Gordon, better known as The Bug Chef, falls somewhere in the middle of these two views. He notes:

“For beginning bug eaters, [I] suggest starting with a gateway ingredient such as cricket flour. It’s easier for most people to – ahem – digest, because it’s not (a) whole (insect). They don’t see it looking back at them. I think if there is going to be a broader acceptance, it might come in that. [But] I want people to be aware of what they’re eating; the bugs in my recipes have prominence. But the idea of using tempura batter and deep frying them – or anything that kind of conceals the I’m-eating-a-bug aspect, such as dipping them in chocolate, so they are a little disguised – can be a good place to start.”

Now this is the part of the story where I stroke my chin and ponder. All the sentiments above are rationale. I wonder where I stand… I figured the best thing to do in this case would be to email Gregory, the man that had left the comment on my blog. He kindly replied that he would be happy to get on a phone call, and we proceeded to have a riveting conversation about the marketing of insects. Gregory explained his views as follows:

“The movement is trying to get people aware [of edible insects]… to garner interest. But where do you cross the line? There are different ways to look at it. On one hand, you want to get the information out there. But on the other, you don’t want to make [insects] just another novelty.

The thing to do is to look at recent food movements like sushi. I was brought up that it was dangerous and irresponsible to eat things that were not cooked. The idea of eating sushi was very simple: Don’t do it! Over time, however, eating sushi became this thing that the wealthy began doing… people began to look up to their role models that ate sushi and started doing it themselves. 

Today, the key is getting the “foodies” involved. Now, entomophagy is already in good league with getting foodies involved. And this is important because today people make food decisions based on what pleases them – we have to show them that other people enjoy it. Today “the masses” are not making dinner decisions based on what’s socially responsible, or what’s radical and exciting. They are going to go to McDonalds because it is cheap and they like the taste. They are not making the decision because it is has social good, or because it is good for their health [like insects are].” 

Gregory had some great points. “The masses,” as he puts it, choose food because it’s something they WANT to eat. How do we generate that desire? Getting foodies involved is a good first step. We started chatting about culture’s role next. Gregory notes:

“I remember reading in that book Man Eating Bugs about how on one side of a country border a person eats one bug and points to the other side and says “how icky” to the people on the other side eating a different bug. We are culturally biased: what we know is good is what we were brought up to know is good. Strange things can be “icky.” People buy what they are used to… people buy comfort food. 

I know in other places of the world where insects are a delicacy, even people that have a hard time making ends meet will spend more money on insects because these are comfort foods to them. The opposite is true in much of the world.”

I agree with a lot of what Gregory was saying. We both agreed that insects need to become part of our normal diets, and a big step in that is normalizing them. Now… how to get there? I asked Gregory what his background was… how HE came to be interested in entomophagy in the first place. He explained:

“I was born in Louisiana – I’m a Cajun – I love good food. I was brought up with the idea of eating anything. I hunted. I grew up eating crawfish, and to us it was very normal. To other people, they look at it and see: bug. It looks like a cockroach to some. A lot of people do not want to be near these things. 

BUT if you present them in an appealing dish – people eat it up! If you put a crawfish in front of someone, they won’t touch it, but if you prepare it in a dish… it’s dinner! People eat fish and duck, but you don’t bring that over with the head on it. We don’t like being accosted with the idea of death while eating. 

How did I personally get involved in entomophagy? I’m an explorer. I like looking at the edge of things and have an interest in outdoor living and survival. There are stories of people who died with food all around them because they don’t accept things as food. 

So I thought, “Oh yeah, I would do it if it came to it.” I didn’t get much further until I got into beekeeping and started reading about insects. I read about people eating wax moth larva, and got up the nerve to try it! 

I gathered wax worms from a failed beehive and made a stir-fry with curry. That’s about as far as that went until a bit later when I took a trip to Mexico, and there was a guide among us who knew the area. She would take us to restaurants every night that would expose us to the cuisine of the different states of the nation. That’s when I first tried chapulines [grasshopper] tostadas. Now, only some people around my table would try the tostadas with the bugs on top. But when we had these dishes of ground-up chapulines, which tasted like roasted pecans, and we were told to sprinkle that over our pizzas… NOW people were more interested.”

While talking to Gregory, I kept thinking I need to talk to more people who comment here… this is the best insight I’ve heard in a long while! I felt myself nodding along with everything he was saying. I totally agree that when people make a leap to considering insects as ingredients rather than just icky bugs, we’ve won a huge part of the battle. I mentioned this idea to Gregory, and he chuckled:

“Yes! But keep in mind that people might pick up food ideas in different ways. I love the story of popcorn with salt. You know how everyone in North America eats popcorn with salt? Well, the folks in other countries saw on television people adding white powder to their popcorn. Now, in some other countries people add sugar (not salt!) to their popcorn.

We might consider this incorrect by our standards, but it’s still good! There is a lot of opportunity for people to expand the use of eating insects and our knowledge about it. I don’t think the fear factor thing NEEDS to happen, but you certainly can’t stop it from happening!”

I realized that although I had just called Gregory to ask about his comment on my blog, this had turned into an interview of sorts. At this point I was gleefully jotting ideas and new questions down that his careful and insightful articulation of these issues had inspired. I decided to ask him my favorite interview question: “If you had a magic wand and could contribute to or change one thing about the way the entomophagy field is brining insects to market, what would it be?” He responded:

“I believe the best single thing is to educate the children so that the next generation sees entomophagy as normal.  A generation is a very quick cycle.  I’m amazed at how fast things like anti-smoking swept our country.  Teach the children how good insects can taste.  They are also more receptive when young, with less concern for social stigma.

I [also] think a main focus should be getting chefs to come out with recipes that inspire foodies. Get these nicely plated dishes in front of foodies and have them spread the word.”

I couldn’t agree more. After such an amazing chat, I returned to musing about how my own blog reflects my values and beliefs about how entomophagy should be presented and marketed to the world. I’m going to keep the pictures up of me eating whole tarantulas… I like the idea of being a little scandalous at times to have fun with the community. I think that Gordon gets it right when he says “I want people to be aware of what they are eating.” I want people to see the silly, the joy, the interesting, and the yummy side of insects! On the other side, I’m now dedicated to making more of a point to stress the fact that insects are INGREDIENTS. You’ll be seeing more recipes from me on this site, and much more of a dedication to education. I’m beyond grateful that these individuals have opened up to me about their views… the community is growing, and I’ll try to keep up!

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