Edible Insects within Cultural Context--and Comic Panels
A review of ‘Meal', the entomophagy comic by Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho
Feb. 10, 2019
July 1, 2019
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I love eating bugs and I love reading comics, so it wasn't too much of a hard sell when I heard about Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho's Meal, which is a graphic novella about a young chef who moves across the country in hopes of studying under a top chef at a brand new restaurant, focusing on entomocentric cuisine.
What is entomocentric cuisine, you may wonder. Well, I'm glad you asked, because this relates to one of Meal's most valuable contributions: its reverence for edible insects as part of legitimate cuisine, with important cultural context.
Edible insects and entomophagy are becoming something like buzz words (pardon the pun), but these terms are highly problematic. As I've noted elsewhere, the term "edible insects" carries with it an inherent bias which implies that insects are generally unfit for human consumption. We don't refer to cows as "edible animals" so why "edible insects"? Similarly, "entomophagy" is the generally accepted term to refer to the act of eating insects, but it carries with it a distinctly anthropological—almost clinical—tone, as if the compulsion to eat insects were a diagnosable disorder. It has similarly been noted within academia that when people are asked if they are entomophagous they tend to say no, referring to what they eat as not an insect, and what other people eat as insects—even if they might be considered entomophagous by others. In this way entomophagy tends to be an arbitrary, almost a derogatory, term used to describe others and outsiders, but not oneself.
As a direct response to these issues related to "edible insects" and "entomophagy", proponents of insects as food have started to describe cuisine which focuses on insects as "entomocentric cuisine", or alternately, "insect cuisine". Our hope is to move way from anthropological, clinical, or biased, sounding terms and instead focus on insects as central food ingredients in a particular cuisine.
What is Meal About?
On the surface, Meal a comic about food and bugs; and in this respect it exceeds expectations. I ordered it knowing only that, and I was delighted by the panels illustrating the meals the characters prepare, not to mention the recipes in the back. If you love bugs and you love food, you will love Meal.
But on a more abstract level, Meal is about confronting your fears, opening up, and sharing what matters to you with the world. Meal is about being afraid of admitting to yourself what you love, being scared of voicing this to others, and being terrified of sharing it, of losing control when the things you care about no longer belong to you and you alone.
Most of the major characters in Meal struggle with this, whether it's taking themselves seriously as artists, uprooting their lives to chase their dreams without knowing if they will be accepted by their target community, or risking losing a voice after sharing their heritage with the world, potentially losing control of what their cultural symbols represent.
Entomophagy, edible insects, entomocentric cuisine—whatever you want to call it—means different things to different people. Meal gives a voice to those who might be afraid that as insect cuisine garners more attention, its meaning may be diluted, or even polluted, as its significance gets broadened.
Many people expect insects to be the solution to an impending food crisis, some kind of "future food"—but how can we categorize it as food of the future, when it was almost certainly integral to humankind's evolution? All over Europe, insects are legally classified as "novel food", but how can we act like we're doing something new, when insects have been a part of regional cuisines all over the world, for generations?
What are insects? Are they future food? Are edible insects paleo food? Are they novel food? Are they heritage food?
Much like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, insects are all of these things. They are the sustenance of pre-historical mankind, they are the food of the future, they are a part of regional cuisine all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and yes, maybe they are an upcoming food trend in the Western world. In Meal, you will find these multiple perspectives represented within the ensemble of approachable, highly-likeable, characters.
On a personal note, the subject of heritage always makes me feel like an orphan. I'm the child of an immigrant, but when my father and his family moved to the United States, they tried so hard to assimilate that I have almost no connection whatsoever with his heritage. Most of my life has been spent in a minority-majority state that was a part of Mexico until the border moved, though many of the people stayed put. Consequently, I speak Spanish and feel at home around the Latinx culture that surrounded me most of my life, significantly more than my name and appearance superficially suggest. I married someone of a different nationality and I haven't lived in my home country for nearly a decade. So what am I to feel connected to? Whose food am I allowed to love? I'm not unaware that, when I talk about eating insects, I'm a white US American trying to introduce her compatriots to components of other cultures' cuisines, attempting to bring disparate people together while simultaneously trying to avoid sticking my flag in someone else's home and claiming to have discovered it. Discussions of food heritage often make me fear that the Fraud Police are going to come and take my food away, regardless of what it is I'm eating. Meal made me feel like, okay, perhaps the fierce Chef Chanda would stare me down if I tried to enter her kitchen, but I'd find a seat at the table somewhere
Much like the characters confronting their fears, Meal embraces entomophagy, and the people who love it, with openness, humor, and affection. It gives voice to fears some may have over the loss of context insect cuisine may suffer as a consequence of increased attention, but boldly marches onward with intention; and invites us to do the same. US Readers can order it Amazon, European readers will get better shipping by ordering via Book Depository, and everyone in the world no matter where you are can order the PDF directly for only $8 from Iron Circus Comics.
I'm Mic. I love reading about, writing about, thinking about, photographing, and especially eating, food. Especially bug food. Enough talk, let's eat!