The Red Squiggles: A Cultural and Historical View on Entomophagy

Emily Jorgensen

They were salty and must have been cooked with generous amounts of garlic. Crunchy at first, they broke down until they formed a grainy paste on my tongue. I was surprised, but pleasantly so. In fact, the deliciousness factor had far exceeded what I thought I would experience, and I immediately grabbed a tortilla chip and loaded it with more chapulines, which is Spanish for grasshoppers. Wait, Spanish for what? I know, I know. I apologize if I just completely alienated you. It’s not every day you get a detailed description of grasshopper flavor sprung upon you without warning, but I swear I have a point.

I have been researching the human practice of insect consumption, scientifically known as entomophagy, by myriads of other societies. I learned that our country is one of the few that views eating insects as distasteful. When I think about the violent disgust that is the general “Western” reaction, I can’t help but feel a little ashamed. Before I wrote this, I knew I needed some first-hand experience. It seemed wrong to write about entomophagy if I had never tried it myself. Unfortunately, I knew the only bugs I had eaten were probably those that crawled into my snoring maw while I slept. So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that grasshoppers were offered in a restaurant that I visited while on vacation in Mexico.

Not only did I try them, I enjoyed them. I peered inside the brightly painted bowl of chapulines. I had expected them to be larger, with heavily armored outer carapaces, sharp, hooked feet, and black beady eyes. Instead, an indistinct brown mass sat before me, which I had quickly sampled before a change of mind could deter me. Looking closer, I saw that what I had assumed to be chopped up hunks of grasshopper were actually whole beings. The tiny fellows were fried brown to a crisp, except for their bellies, which were a lighter cream color. Their spindly legs were either curled up beneath them, or were missing somewhere in the bowl. I sifted through my new little friends searching for the chili pepper that the waiter had warned me about. That night as I flossed, I found a minute limb wedged in my teeth and gave myself a brief nod of approval in the mirror. I could have cringed, shrieked, had an emotional breakdown, or maybe even fainted. All of these reactions would have been more typical of the “Western” attitude.

By Western I refer to North Americans and most Europeans. Though this term is not all-inclusive, it is the general mindset of fear and trepidation towards insects. Insects are not viewed as cute; they are perceived as creepy. They are pests. Even the idea of one touching you sends shivers up your spine. Throughout our lives we are taught to view insects as dangerous and unpredictable. In the media, aliens and monsters are often depicted with insect-like characteristics. Just think of Men In Black, when Will Smith saves the world from an extra-terrestrial that is referred to as the “Bug” and appears to be a giant cockroach. Furthermore, we are far more likely to see an organization advocating the protection of tigers and less likely to find one raising funds for the preservation of a certain insect species, which are just as—if not more—critical to the balance of the ecosystem. Any organizations pertaining to insects are pest- control or disease prevention centered. Since insects already have a bad stigma, the thought of eating them triggers an extremely negative reaction. Insects are associated with ‘the other’, or unfamiliar outside influences. If “you are what you eat”, then consuming insects, “…is in a sense to become contaminated, subhuman, truly ‘other’” (Looy, Dunkel and Wood). They are known as “survival food” because the only circumstance in which most could conceive themselves eating bugs would be in a life-or-death situation. In fact, the idea of entomophagy is so rejected in our society that even my Microsoft Word denies it the right of being a real word, marring it with red squiggles every time I type it into a document. To me, these squiggles represent the close-mindedness of the Western perspective on this matter.

I don’t condemn my own society for this flaw, however. It is simply the way our culture is. That being said, I refer to it as a fault because it not only blocks us from certain culinary possibilities, but also inflicts harm onto other cultures. For many years, westernization has influenced all other countries, imprinting ideas and actions upon other peoples. Emphasizing this view, entomologist Florence S. Dunkel pointed out that “It took a decade for sushi to invade America, but the Colonel [KFC] polysaturated Japan in only a few years” (Menzel and D’Aluisio 179). When it comes to eating insects, we have not absorbed the practices of other cultures but rejected them. In a village called Sanambele in Africa, locals open up about their traditional grasshopper-eating practices only after foreign visitors reassure them that they have tried grasshoppers before (Looy, Dunkel and Wood). In Australia, Aborigines have long since eaten a wide variety of bugs, like termites, moths, witchetty grubs, beetle and wasp larvae, and ant brood but “their practice of entomophagy has decreased over the past 200 years through western influence” (Itterbeeck and van Huis). Bessie Liddle is an Australian Aboriginal woman who explained that, “People could live on grubs, along with honey ants and goannas [lizards]. Then the white man showed up. People don’t dig anymore” (Menzel and D’Aluisio 18). Perhaps this behavior comes from negative Western reactions in the past, and that is why others are reluctant to share and continue that part of their own culture.

In truth, entomophagy spans the length of human history. Even our ancient cousins, primates, rely on insects as an important nutritional intake. Smaller primates, such as tarsiers, rely more than 50 percent on insects in their diet. Even the great apes, like chimpanzees, spend up to 60 percent of total foraging time digging up termites (Raubenheimer and Rothman). Turning to our ancestors, evidence of insect consumption is abundant all throughout the archaeological record. Analyses of fecal remains show evidence of frequent reliance on locusts as a protein source in the past five thousand years. In the complex cities of ancient Mesoamerica, people collected the eggs of water bugs, referred to as “Mexican caviar” by Spanish conquistadors (Itterbeeck and van Huis). In the Valley of Mexico alone, 91 species were a part of the diet in prehistoric times, providing essential sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. In fact, bugs were placed in the same rank as other meats, making it luxury food to be consumed by nobility (Acuña, Caso and Aliphat). Archaeologists have studied many ways of life, and have concluded that foraging for and consuming insects is an “ancient habit” (Itterbeeck and van Huis).

Today, though not as prominent as it once was, entomophagy still flourishes in countless cultures. Across the globe, 1,681 species of insects are consumed, though that number could be argued to be more than 2,000. In the lead, the South Americans consume 679 species across 23 countries (Raubenheimer and Rothman). From passing tradition down through the generations, the descendants of the Mesoamericans are savoring creatures such as stinkbugs even today (Acuña, Caso and Aliphat). Throughout Mexico, chapulines, ant larvae, beetles, and agave worms are all popular foods. Moving south to Venezuela, one can find tarantulas. Tarantulas on a dinner plate, that is. Bugs are often assumed to be either crunchy or “slimy yet satisfying” in the words of Simba, but tarantulas are neither. Once you pluck off their hairs and legs and crack them open, these monstrous spiders have substantial meat on their abdomen muscles. Moving further down the continent to Peru, we hit a hot spot for insect-eating enthusiasts. The Incans find some of their favorite snacks, tayno kuro worms, within the stems of the arawanku plant. Paired with corn, the worms help make up a balanced meal. Bright orange and black caterpillars, called waykjuiro, are harvested from inside tree-trunks and are often cooked with oil, and red or green chiles. Segmented, rubbery creepy crawlies called chanchu chanchu are found in local rivers and often eaten alive. Chiro worms, or beetle larvae, are prepared wanta-style by wrapping the worms in a banana leaf, adding a pinch of salt, and steaming the package by the fire (Menzel and D’Aluisio 150-174).

Deep in the middle of Australia, Aborigines search the vast, red earth for witchetty bushes. Inside the roots live the witchetty grubs, which when cooked taste like “nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella,” and are often made into soup (Menzel and D’Aluisio). Honeypot ants are also a delicious treat. Found in the roots of a dead mulga tree, the ants ingest sap and store it in their pea-sized, pouch-like abdomens, creating a sweet snack for any human willing to try it out. Staying south of the equator, we get a view of the booming mopane caterpillar business in Botswana. People camp out in the open twice a year just to collect thousands of these caterpillars, dry them out in the sun, and sell them to the markets. These caterpillars are famous for having “three times the protein content of beef by unit weight” and the ability to “be stored for many months” (Menzel and D’Aluisio 127). The children of the Northern Province, in South Africa, like to debate which insect is the tastiest: mopane caterpillars, locusts, termites, or grasshoppers. Eleven-year- old Tshaveheni, who’s name in English translates to ‘Be-Afraid-Of- Me’, favors locusts the most, while nine-year-old Thivhashavhi (‘I’m- Not-Afraid-Of-You’) thinks that termites are the most scrumptious. The children go up to five times a week to collect insects to eat (Menzel and D’Aluisio 136).

In Asia, 349 kinds of bugs are munched on across 29 countries (Raubenheimer and Rothman). The people of the Arunachal Pradesh state in Northern India collectively consume 81 different species of bugs, not including the silk worms commonly sold at the markets. (Chakravorty, Ghosh and Meyer-Rochow). In Chang Mai, Thailand, one can collect giant winged red ants, two hours of hunting resulting in one liquor-bottle full. These ants are delicious in a stir-fry, and add a bacon-like flavor. Like the Venezuelans, Cambodians also like to enjoy themselves a nice skewer of tarantulas from time to time. Children from Bali, Indonesia, are still taught to catch dragonflies. A strip of palmwood is first coated in the white sap of the jackfruit tree, which then ensnares the wings of dragonflies. In Irian Jaya, sago-palm trees are cut down to make flour. The stump is resourcefully left behind for sago-grubs to invade, and to later be harvested. In China, scorpions can be found for sale in the markets of Guangzhou, both for consumption and medicinal purposes. Though traditionally scorpions are cooked, they can also be munched on while in a comatose state induced by being soaked in rice wine (Menzel and D’Aluisio 38-104).

Evidence of entomophagy is both extensive and diverse all across the globe. It is clear that in the negative sentiment towards this practice, we are the minority. Phil Ross, a ‘bug chef’ from San Francisco, is of the opinion that Western peoples can overcome their fears and allow entomophagy to become, though perhaps not the norm, something not to fear. He states that, “transgression of one taboo leads to all kinds of other possibilities” (Gordinier). I agree with him. After tasting my first bite of grasshopper, I felt like I had overcome a barrier. Now I can maybe even see some tarantula in my future. I want to try all these amazing dishes, to share these experiences with those who are eager to share not only food at a table but also their culture and their history. Who are we to reject such sincerity? Right now, Western expansion is harming other cultures. Our viewpoints are expressed so strongly that it overshadows other cultures’ ways of life. Gene DeFoliart, a former entomologist at the University of Wisconsin, reasoned that while “progress often means abandoning old habits,” in this case “progress will come from keeping them” (Menzel and D’Aluisio). It doesn’t mean we have to enjoy the taste; we all have our preferences. However, it will help keep our minds open to others and combat ethnocentricity. So, what are you waiting for? Spread the word. I’ve bugged you enough.

Works Cited

Acuña, Ana María, et al. “Edible insects as part of the traditional food system of the Popoloca town of Los Reyes Metzontla, Mexico.” Journal of Ethnobiology 31.1 (2011): 150-169.

Chakravorty, Jharna, Sampat Ghosh, and Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow. “Practices of entomophagy and entomotherapy by members of the Nyishi and Galo tribes, two ethnic groups of the state of Arunachal Pradesh (North-East India).” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7.5 (2011): 1-14.

Gordinier, Jeff. “Waiter, There’s Soup in My Bug.” The New York Times. 21 September 2010.

Looy, Heather, Florence V. Dunkel, and John R. Wood. “How then shall we eat? Insect-eating attitudes and sustainable foodways.” Agriculture and Human Values 31.1 (2014): 131-141.

Men In Black. Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld. Perf. Will Smith. Columbia Pictures, 1997. Film.

Menzel, Peter and Faith D’Aluisio. Man Eating Bugs: The art and science of eating insects. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

Raubenheimer, David, and Jessica M. Rothman. “Nutritional ecology of entomophagy in humans and other primates.” Annual Review of Entomology 58 (2013): 141-160.

The Lion King. Dir. Rob Minkoff Roger Aller. Perf. Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Walt Disney Pictures. 1994. Film.

Van Itterbeeck, Joost, and Arnold van Huis. “Environmental manipulation for edible insect procurement: a historical perspective.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 8.3 (2012).

Instructor’s Memo

Our English 100 class embarked upon the task of writing an informative essay by discussing the sources we would use. At the outset, we eliminated sources that are almost always inappropriate for use in a college-level essay: Wikipedia or Sparknotes, for example. We then considered the principal categories of acceptable sources, closely examining their quality and the varying contexts in which their use might be effective. A newspaper article, for instance, could be cited as evidence of public opinion, but would not have the scientific authority of a source from a peer-reviewed journal.

For their paper, I asked my students to write an informative essay about the foodstuff of their choice. Most undertook a historical, nutritional, or cultural analysis. Emily’s essay looks at a food choice from a global-cultural perspective. This was a particularly challenging choice.

The historical and health perspectives were simpler to structure. The students writing historical papers tended to take a chronological approach, while students considering the nutritional value of foods weighed the pros and cons. Emily’s task was more complex. She was initially overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information she had gathered. It was important to her not to focus in on one dish, but to present the wealth and variety of a field she was just discovering. After her first draft, we met and talked about how she could create a structure that was both engaging and clear. In her subsequent re- drafts, she worked hard to refine her ordering and presentation of the material.

In the end, it was her sources that determined the structure. Part of the assignment was to employ different sorts of sources. Emily highly successfully blended pop culture references with analysis from ethnographic journals. She went further; she was one of the few students who chose to incorporate first person research. The class had discussed the value a primary source contributes because of its immediacy, but also how it may be less authoritative at the level of overview. By foregrounding her essay in her own experiment in entomophagy, Emily was extremely effective at drawing the reader in, before presenting a well-researched and supported global perspective on entomophagy. In this way, Emily enabled the reader to share the same sense of widening knowledge that she herself had experienced as a researcher.

—- Rowan Buchanan

Writer’s Memo

Upon looking back, the most challenging aspect of writing this essay was the selection of a topic. Our instructions had been simple: to chose a type of food and write a research paper on it. It had sounded an easy enough task at the time, but being the food lover I am I was faced with a daunting list of my favorite snacks. I wondered how on earth I was supposed to make a final decision. In the end, I took an entirely different route to where my initial thought process had been leading me. I decided to write about something unfamiliar to me, and I aimed to select something the reader would not expect. The answer came to me relatively quickly after that. Bugs, after all, are not something that most of my society would think to eat for dinner.

— Emily Jorgensen

Student Writing Award: Informative/Synthesis Essay
This essay was previously published in the 9th edition of CCC.