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Insect candy given out as part of a promotion in London last year. (Getty Images)

The Katydid Dilemma: Will You Eat Insects?

Jan 17, 2014

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It's right there on the dinner menu at Oyamel (a Washington, D.C., restaurant), listed under the "authentic Mexican tacos" section:

Chapulines

The legendary Oaxacan specialty of sauteed grasshoppers, shallots, tequila and guacamole.

$5.00

Whether it's sauteed grasshoppers at Oyamel or katydid grilled cheese sandwiches prepared for the annual Bug Fair at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, insects are the new darlings of the avant-garde food world. At least that's the message in the chapter called "Grub" from Dana Goodyear's book Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture.

Which animals we eat, and which we revile and reject, fascinates me. It's in this context that I'm beginning to explore entomophagy.

Goodyear notes that 80 percent of the species alive on Earth today are insects, but only select species are consumed. Marc Dennis, writing on the Insects Are Food website, is more specific:

"There are an estimated 1,462 recorded species of edible insects and in all likelihood hundreds if not thousands more that simply haven't been sampled or perhaps not even discovered yet."

If, as Goodyear describes, insect-eating is seen as a cutting-edge culinary adventure in the U.S., it's an everyday thing in other parts of the world. Brittany Fallon, my former student at the College of William and Mary, now conducting doctoral research in Uganda on the behavior of wild chimpanzees, stressed for me in an email message how selective villagers are about what insects they eat, and how detailed their knowledge is of insect behavior:

"There are 'white ants' which come in March after a big rain between 4/5 AM. Then there are 'big ants' which come in May, and emerge from the mounds at 1 AM. Finally, there are 'bimumu' the August ants, which come between 5-6 PM. Ants can be prepared in several ways: pan-fried with a bit of oil and spices, boiled into a kind of soup, and third, made into a sort of 'bread' of ground ant patties which are first boiled while wrapped in banana leaves, and then pan-fried. I've eaten the fried ants - yummy, no particular taste I can remember other than crunchy and oily, like popcorn - and also the ant bread, which tasted exactly like a McDonald's sausage patty (not so yummy, to a longtime vegetarian)."

Here at home, will insect-eating really catch on? I wonder about the squeamish-palate factor, and about the ethics of eating insects versus other animals. Clearly, as Marc Dennis notes, insects pack a nutritional punch:

"According to the Entomological Society of America they generally contain more protein and are lower in fat than traditional meats. In addition they have about 20 times higher food conversion efficiency than traditional meats. In other words they have a better feed-to-meat ratio than beef, pork, lamb or chicken, not to mention other less traditional meats such as goat, horse, buffalo, ostrich and alligator."

So, because I'm curious, questions for my readers:

If you're vegetarian, would you consider supplementing your intake of protein by way of entomophagy?

If you eat meat, would you consider sometimes substituting insects for other animals?


You can keep up with what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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