I once loved an insectivore. Not long after her adoption, Hedgie, as we called our family hedgehog, learned to relax her spines, unclench from her defensive ball, and share her love as well as any cat or dog. But in spite of how well we came to know her, nothing astounded my younger brother and me more than Hedgie’s feeding ritual. Every night after work, my father would scoop our furry friend out of her cage, open the PetSmart-brand tub, and call us over as Hedgie snapped up crickets or mealworms with animal relish.
Although we lost Hedgie in 2005, it would take me until January 2012 to understand truly what she was made of. Amidst the bustle of a night market off Beijing’s trendy Wangfujing Street, I made final communion with my late pet hedgehog: for about $3, I polished off two chili-sprinkled grasshoppers and four baby scorpions. I became an insectivore.
It was a long time in the making. Aside from Hedgie’s daily example, I grew up admiring “Strange Foods,” an artful coffee table book by Jerry Hopkins with features on the many ways to eat “grasshoppers,” “ants and termites,” “spiders and scorpions,” “beetles,” “crickets and cicadas,” “butterflies and moths,” and “flies.” Even then, I was struck by the moral clarity of Hopkins’ assertion: “while it is true that in some cases in undeveloped or still-emerging countries, people eat insects out of necessity, generally speaking it is the abundance, accessibility, nutritional value, and taste that makes insects popular as food, and not the threat of starvation.” In other words, it makes sense to eat bugs.
Compared to the world’s present-day animal agriculture industry, an entomophagous society would be both more efficient and ecologically sounder. High in protein and low in fat, insects could both save the poor from the brink of starvation and save the rich from diseases engendered by a high-fat diet. And for what it’s worth, not only can eating insects be efficient, nutritious, and delectable, but more profoundly, it can also be an impetus toward open-mindedness in a world stultified by routine.
It doesn’t take much more than a screening of Food, Inc. to know that the livestock-based meat industry is coursing quickly toward unsustainability. All the tenets of this standard vegetarian trope are essentially true: the livestock industry contributes handily to global warming, its appetite for pasture has felled millions of acres of forest, and its animals consume a majority of grain grown on the planet.
Fortunately, insects represent an efficient, environmentally sound alternative that can sate our naturally animal-craving palates. Requiring little space, insects take in a trivial amount of water compared to traditional livestock—while at the same time reproducing far more quickly and converting food into body mass far more efficiently. Moreover, an insect-based food economy would not only correct for the gross distortions that make starvation a daily prospect for many Third World peasants, but it would also restore plentiful, high-protein, mineral-rich locusts, beetles, and ants to the diets of peoples addicted into malnourishment by packaged Western foods. And among populations where obesity has outstripped starvation as a threat to public health, the low-fat, hormone-free character of insect meat would do much to overturn the excesses of a half-century of cow and pig consumption gone awry.
Lest you take your writer for a masochist, I promise that I would not be making this case if insects tasted bad. On the contrary, insects, like other animals, can prove delicious if done right—not an altogether difficult task, considering that entomophagous chefs need not deal with the blood, gristle, and leathery skin that typifies the business of cooking conventional meat. Not to speak of my no-frills skillet-to-skewer experience in Beijing, “Strange Foods” offers recipes for grasshopper spring rolls, scorpion and asparagus canapés, cricket tempura, and ant egg tamales.
Finally, the case for eating insects is a case for rebellion against arbitrary standards of disgust: a case for open-mindedness. Despite the illusion of unprecedented choice in our customization-happy age, most people in the developed world make very few interesting choices on a daily basis. And although it once made sense to be disgusted by bugs—absent quality control, our ancestors often had no way to trust that they were free of toxins—it now makes more sense to be disgusted by beef, pork, and chicken, shot up with hormones and torn apart on slaughterhouse floors. Not only will you be fitter for having chosen entomophagy, but you’ll also be a braver, more adventurous person for having resisted the evolutionary and social impulses to shun creepy crawlers.
So trendsetters, drop your bacon cupcakes: join me, my pet hedgehog, and the eager bug sellers of Donghuamen Night Market and crunch into something winged and sextipedal. The earth, your waistline, and your palate will thank you.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.