ON EATING INSECTS: ESSAYS, STORIES AND RECIPES, reviewed by David Maclean
From Nordic Food Lab, Joshua Evans, Roberto Flore and Michael Bom Frøst. Published by Phaidon Press (May 2017)
"As the anxiety evangelist Søren Kierkegaard quipped, to label me is to negate me, and the same holds true for eating insects, risking a glib dismissal of the particular contexts, species, and appropriate conditions for eating bugs."
What do you eat, and what do you not eat? Or perhaps more crucially, why do you think you eat what you do? An off-the-cuff response to these questions might point towards taste—an obviously subjective quality—edibility, availability, nutritional content, or specific dietary requirements. The reality is that almost everything that we consider food, from seed to plate, is subject to the invisible hand of culture, which determines what we do and do not eat. This is where On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes jumps off, setting out the argument for reconsidering the act of eating as a political and sociocultural one, without sacrificing any of the playful curiosity that defines the best culinary adventures.
The book represents the culmination of nine years of research by the Nordic Food Lab, a joint venture from Claus Meyer, the chef and entrepreneur, and René Redzepi. Together, they founded the avant-garde Copenhagen restaurant Noma in 2003 with the aim of bringing a humanistic approach back to popular dining experiences—exploring the culinary heritage of the Nordic regions, its origins, and its possibilities. By turns an anthropological study and an exploration of the unexpected delights that entomophagy can bring, the book offers a much-needed level of sobriety and thoughtfulness to the issues around eating insects. It offers a counterpoint to the rising discussions in the West—fuelled in particular by sensationalist media coverage—about the nutritional and economic benefits of eating insects as a means of weaning ourselves from meat production.
By contrast, the strength of this book lies in its scepticism about the idea of insects as a miracle cure to the world’s regional food crises. As the authors pointedly explain, there is already more than enough food produced to feed the entire world. Nor is there ample evidence to suggest that an insect-driven protein industry would be immune to the issues around sustainability and ethical consumption that have dogged the capitalist project overall. Reading through the book, I was reminded of the opening scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as the camera zooms past the prostrated figure of Kyle MacLachlan’s father, to the grass and further on to the swarms of ants working out of sight. In this instance, our gaze is drawn into the heart of the nest to understanding how these species interact with an anthropocentric world.
As a myriad number of infographics populating Reddit and the various corners of the web will attest, when it comes to comparisons of foodstuffs, insects will invariably win. They do, after all, require fewer resources to cultivate, and grow into sizeable populations for farming; they boast a bounteous amount of nutrients such as protein, fats, minerals and vitamins and are no more harmful to eat than conventional livestock. It’s for these reasons, and more besides, that these kinds of discussions around eating insects have become increasingly prevalent (London’s first “insect bar” made its debut in Marylebone last year), often focused on the issue of sustainability. But what is an insect, and what is not? And who or what is an insect-eater?
By way of explanation, the book includes a number of condensed academic essays which shed light on these issues of taxonomy, broaching wider issues surrounding the philosophy of language. It’s in these rather nerdy chapters that the book is most illuminating. The in-depth explorations offer an accessible take on the wider issues at stake in labelling and categorising, as well as introducing lay readers to some of the existential questions at play when we talk about the practice of entomophagy. As the anxiety evangelist Søren Kierkegaard quipped, to label me is to negate me, and the same holds true for eating insects, risking a glib dismissal of the particular contexts, species, and appropriate conditions for eating bugs.
The book explores local habits of eating insects, and the language used to describe the practice. Researcher Gabriela Maciel-Vergara, who specializes in sustainable development at the University of Copenhagen, describes how in her native Mexico, the word “entomophagy” (the practice of eating insects by humans) doesn’t exist in a meaningful way in Spanish. No linguistic distinction is made between those who choose to eat insects and those who do not. Instead, eating insects is considered to be a personal preference, largely coloured by regional customs and family traditions.
We are presented with a similar anecdote in the book’s many case studies around individual species. The Sardinian Chef Roberto Flore describes the peculiar case of casu marzu, a local sheep’s milk cheese that houses maggots—squirming insect larvae cuddle alongside the curd. A regional delicacy often ranked among the world’s most disgusting dishes, literally translated as “rotten cheese,” the dish occupies a special place in the hearts of Flore’s fellow Sardinians. Although subject to a ban by the European Union on grounds of food hygiene regulations (though it seems unlikely that Nigel Farage and his ilk will complain about that particular bit of bureaucratic red tape) the dish has never commanded a sensational appeal for the inclusion of insects among its traditional eaters, who celebrate its unique taste. “For us," Flore writes, "the casu marzu was just a food...Nobody even considered the fact that we were eating insects.”
Its cultural and linguistic histories aside, Eating Insects is a recipe book, begging the question of intended audience. Who—and how many—are the home cooks likely to seek out cricket flour or cockroach milk? The ingredients themselves are difficult to source for the average person, and often they are, paradoxically, expensive, given that insects are largely considered to be one of the most populous and unappealing lifeforms to Western appetites. Nor do the authors believe that everyone in the world should suddenly switch pulled pork for sautéed drone bee larvae (which reportedly has an appetising taste profile that sits between honey, watermelon, and nuts), or that everyone should even eat insects in general. Instead, the book seeks to move the discussion on eating insects away from novelty and miracle cures to an authentic discussion of the edible potential of the world around us and how we interact with and interpret our food. "A story about food can travel much faster and wider than can the food itself or the experience of eating," the book teaches us, demonstrating (without preaching or pandering) the role that the human beings continue to have in holding a mirror up to nature—and to ourselves.
When at its best, Eating Insects evokes the experience of a tasting salon with Michel Foucault; each morsel on the plate is subject to the roving eye of the anthropologist discussing its position as a vibrant and present artefact. We may veer off course on tangents, digressions and sketchy, doubtful jottings, each brought upon by a particular sensation, taste or epiphany, but the reader returns to the issues at stake with a richer, more satisfying sense of what it is to exist in the world. Ultimately, what Eating Insects drives home is that the questions raised here matter, going beyond mere names and categories: “they are also about how individuals and groups build and maintain identities, interact with companion species and negotiate the structures of power.”