Stop Equating Edible Insects With the Apocalypse
Associating food that's normal in most parts of the world with the apocalypse is not funny; it's bigoted and offensive
Dec. 2, 2018
May 5, 2019
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English-language media, please stop saying you are eating bugs to prepare for the apocalypse. It's not original, even less funny, and most of all, highly offensive. Edible insects may strike us in the English-speaking world as "bizarre food" or "future food", or not even food at all—the phrase "edible insects" has in itself an inherent bias, considering that we don't refer to vegetables as "edible plants"—but it's totally normal to eat insects in many parts of the world; just not our part of the world. Every time time we say something like, "I am going to eat bugs to prepare for the apocalypse", what we're really saying to millions of people all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America is:
"The food you eat is so repulsive to me I will deign to eat it only eat it if and only if humanity were facing an extinction event."
I get it, I used to make that joke too. A few years ago I posted a video on Instagram with a similar caption. The video was of me in Bangkok, eating food items my US American friends would consider shocking: crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo caterpillars, and skewered chicken hearts. I've since taken the video down because as my awareness grew, it made me uncomfortable that the punchline was the culturally bigoted assumption that what I was eating was some kind of inedible last-resort. It's not. It's normal. I bought it right outside my apartment. And it's good. Actually, I love eating chicken hearts, bamboo caterpillars, and grasshoppers (I didn't mention crickets just now because they're actually my least favorite bug; I don't love them, I just like them).
The point is, who am I to decide what's edible and what's not? Who are we to point at something that is considered ordinary—or sometimes even a delicacy—in more parts of the world than it isn't, and tell them we'd only eat it if it were the last food on earth?
Food is deeply cultural. My husband is German, and before I met his family for the first time, his mother wanted me to feel welcomed. So she went to the grocery store and asked them, "What do Americans eat?"
Cereal, they told her. So she bought 6 boxes of it.
As it turns out, I hate cereal. I felt absolutely vindicated when I found out that it's not because of any inherent value in cereal itself but rather extremely effective marketing that US Americans eat cereal for breakfast. My feelings of indignant vindication stem from my youth, constantly battling my mom over my dislike for cereal. After years of stalemate, my mother and I eventually compromised on my consenting to eat something every morning, but it would generally be the kind of food other US Americans would eat for lunch or dinner. You have no idea how at-home I felt when I started to spend time in Southeast Asia, where it's completely noncontroversial to eat rice and curry for breakfast.
A decade later and a continent away, I was so touched by my mother-in-law's concern that I ate the cereal anyway (2 of the 6 boxes, at least), but truth be told I would much rather have been eating assorted meat and cheese with the rest of the family. Nonetheless, even though I personally hate cereal, I acknowledge that cereal is a totally normal thing in the USA, and the person who told her that's what US Americans eat was not wrong.
Edible insects are, although less common, somewhat similar. I spend several months a year in Thailand, and I talk a lot about the ubiquity of edible insects in Bangkok: on the street, at markets, in the grocery store, even at 7-11. I don't mean to claim that every Thai person eats insects every day, or even at all, any more than every US American eats cereal (that was probably the first time I had eaten it in over a decade). But when I'm out and about in Bangkok I see edible insects, in some form or another, at least once a day; their occurrence is very commonplace. Literally at this moment there is a guy selling crickets, grasshoppers, silkworms, and desserts, out of a scooter/food truck, right outside my of apartment; he's there about 3 or 4 nights a week. Last night I was at a friend's place across town and I saw grasshoppers, silkworms, and ants, for sale; also alongside desserts and out of a food-scooter.
In fact, when I was writing my cookbook about edible insects, when I told people from US America or a European country about the project, their response tended to be:
"Why would you write about that? That's so gross!"
But when I told my Thai friends, they asked me:
"Why would you write about that? That's so boring!"
Another common misstep we make is when we assume that people who eat insects must do it for lack of alternatives. This assertion is laughable to anyone who has ever been to a Thai night market, where on any given night there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of food options—including insects. Not only is the "lack of food" argument demonstrably untrue on the basis of food availability, it's also untrue on an economic basis. Pound for pound, insects are generally more expensive than chicken or pork. In Northern Thailand, I once met a mango farmer who, upon noticing that the ants which were infesting his farm sold for a higher price at the market than his mangos did, began farming and selling them both. The entomophagy-famine connection falls apart under even a little bit of scrutiny, and in fact current research indicates that geography is the strongest predictor of whether or not a culture will be entomophagous (insect-eating).
Certainly, there have been cases in which people ate insects out of poor circumstances, but that does not mean that eating insects should be inexorably linked with poverty any more than lobsters (it was once considered cruel to feed prisoners lobster more than once a week) or avocados (formerly dubbed, "poor man's butter") should be. This assumption confuses correlation with causation: often what is considered food for poor people is so because its relative abundance makes it impossible to turn the food item into a restricted commodity and thereby a status symbol—not necessarily based on inherent quality of the food itself. It is also worth noting here that food has the tendency to reflect social hierarchies: lobsters were out of favor among the British when they were associated with Algonquins, and avocados with locals prior to the arrival of dairy cattle from Europe to the Americas. In modern terms, I've anecdotally noticed that in the southwestern region of the United States, Mexican food tends to be considered low-price and low-status, whereas in Germany it has a more upscale reputation, and their low-status food is that which was brought to the country by their imported workers: the Turkish. Original Mexican or Turkish cuisine is the same whether I'm eating it in Berlin or San Bernardino; only the social status of the people who brought it, relative to where I'm eating it, has changed.
I know that when we imagine eating something to which we have a visceral aversion, such as insects, it's hard for us to believe people might enjoy eating it. We think we would only eat it if we were desperate, so other people must be desperate, too. But people eat food other than what we eat, and they don't do it because they lack the opportunity to eat the same things we do, any more than people who worship a different god do it because they've never heard of ours. When we unquestioningly assume that people who eat insects do so only out of poverty or famine, we are projecting from a place of cultural bias, not to mention resembling an updated version of colonialist condescension.
Fully aware that I am presuming to speak for people from cultural groups to which I don't belong, prior to writing this I asked a friend of mine if I was being a jerk for calling this out as offensive. Her attitude towards edible insects is similar to those of my Thai friends': insects are consumed from time to time in her home country of Malawi, so she finds my interest in edible insects a little silly. Like making a big deal about carrots. She shrugged and said, "People eat what they eat. I don't eat pork. I don't care that you do. Why get upset about it?"
She's much more laid-back than I am.
Perhaps I’m projecting, just like the apocalyptic hyperbolists I object to. Maybe I’m particularly irascible. All I know is, if people kept making "jokes" about how disgusting it is to grind up bovine muscle and smother it with hot rotten mammary secretions (yum yum I love cheeseburgers), I'd eventually get annoyed by it. Yes I think it's delicious, what's so funny about that?
Not only is food cultural, it's also deeply emotional. Psychological research indicates that meat-eaters tend to feel uncomfortable around vegetarians because they perceive that they are being negatively judged—though it's important to note that meat-eaters generally think they are being judged much more harshly by the vegetarians than they actually are. The point is, when we know that people reject our food, we also perceive on some level that they have rejected us.
Mocking people's food can be another way of mocking people; for this reason ethnic slurs have sometimes used food as fodder (krauts and beaners, to name a few). We need to be more mindful of the message we're sending when we, in the English-speaking world, equate edible insects—normal food to pretty much everyone but us—with disgust and desperation.
This post was Featured on Medium
I'm Mic. I love reading about, writing about, thinking about, photographing, and especially eating, food. Especially bug food. Enough talk, let's eat!