The aesthetics of insects: Staring down my disgust
As a writer and researcher who focuses on food and sustainability, I appreciate the benefits of accepting insects as a standard part of the western diet. In one sense, they represent a neat solution to several of the big problems in the food system. They are, after all, nutrient-filled whole foods that can be grown using comparatively little land and water, fed by food waste alone. But still I have a problem. I am born of a food culture that has actively eschewed insects for thousands of years. When I look at a dish garnished with mealworms, ants or crickets, I simply can’t escape my disgust. Not because these insects can’t be delicious - their long history as a part of a wide range of cuisines across the world shows how appetising they can be - but because I bring with me the Western cultural revulsion to eating insects. Given the huge number of benefits edible insects may provide us, it’s worth examining the history of this abhorrence and how this might change in the future. Based on research and interviews with insect producers conducted for a recent article, as well as additional qualitative interviews with eaters, this six minute PechaKucha presentation examines the disgust many people feel when presented with a bowlful insects, as well as looking at ways that might change in the future.
Jen Richards is a freelance writer and researcher in the space where gastronomy meets sustainability, as well as a copywriter for sustainable food businesses. She has a Masters in Sustainability from Sydney University.
We're asking: How do we make aesthetic judgements about food that disgusts?
Can there be pleasure and enjoyment in knowing our food sources intimately?
Join in the chat, what do you think?
What we eat says a lot about who we are as individuals and how we experience the world.
What we choose to eat and the feelings and emotions that we encounter when growing, purchasing, preparing, serving, sharing and eating food is complex and thought by many to be attributable to not only our gustatory sense of taste, but also our cultural upbringing and our place in society. I wonder if there is an age or stage in human development in which our gustatory and metaphorical 'taste' for food is set/fixed/cemented?
About a year ago, my family took a vacation to TNQ. While there, my children very enthusiasticly consumed live green tree ants. In fact, they decided they were so good, just like sour candies and went back for multiple helpings. We also brought back some packets of fried crickets. The children ask me if they can eat them constantly. So far I have denied them. Not because I don't want them eating bugs, but because I am sure they will scoff them before I build up the nerve to try them - an experience I want but am equally repulsed by. Perhaps, building the appeal of insects to the younger generation while they are still forming their 'sense of taste' may be an idea worth considering?
Here is a video of my kids eating "bugs".
We hosted a gin party on world gin day and shared with friends Green Ant Gin, garnished with green ants. To my surprise (and delight) most were very open to tasting both the gin and ants by themselves. Some vegetarians hesitated and the vegan declined but overall a great first insect encounter. Christmas in July is coming up soon, perhaps I can make a nuts and bolts with crickets and mealworms to share? That would be an interesting social experiment!
Excellent presentation, I really enjoyed it Jen.
Enthusiastic amateur here, at the ready in Qld with camels milk, banana flour and a handful of crunchy critters. Future Food is Here.
Interesting that for you they are a food you are nostalgic towards when in my framework they are often considered to be a food of the future! I agree with so many others here that powders do make them more palatable (and let's face it, disguisable) but like you fear that in 50 years time some symposiast will give a being a presentation called "Edible insects: Why we didn't heed lessons from history".
I love your presentation. Mole crickets are a traditional food in my province (Pampanga, Philippines). I never tasted them when I was young, probably because I didn't think of them as food. But for some reason, when I got into my thirty's I just ate them. "pamangan matua" (food of the old folks), that's what some called it. In my case, In my case it must be all the foodwriting I read and the nostalgia of older people around me (as we were losing them, and they were becoming more expensive).
I wish though they are not grown in factories/labs. Even if I haven't developed a taste for other insects/worms yet, I wish they won't be in powders (for the same concern Jacqui Newling mentioned). Also, I wish to keep them where they are. Like our mole crickets, most probably, other insects support and are supported by other food crops, plants, etc. (i.e., Our mole crickets have been disappearing most likely because of the modern rice planted that require a lot of chemical inputs). This reminds me also of many conversations I had about the flavor of wild counterparts of food as better (speaking of culinary understanding of insects which I am so excited to read more about).
Fantastic presentation and insight into insect eating. I really enjoyed your comparison with the Maine Lobster as a food source that has become acceptable. Much like calamari and octopus in Australia. I have different levels of insect disgust- happy to munch on crickets but would never try cockroaches- too much association with poor hygiene. Thanks again!
Excellent presentation Jen, thank you. I'm surprised there are only three types of insects / bugs approved for commercial production in Australia. I thought I sampled more than three varieties in Skye's workshop, (ants, crickets, meal worms and some kind of fly larvae) but perhaps there were different stages in the creature's life cycles. And where are native 'witchetty' grubs, Bogong moths and sugar ants in the frame?
Insects is always a good example to use in teaching in terms of the impact of culture on our diet. If we ate what was good for us, and more sustainable, we'd eat them much more often
I am surprised it is already a billion-dollar industry. Fascinating. As was the presentation, thank you! I have tried crickets in Mexico which I loved, ants that tasted like nothing really, and I would love to try tarantula (some people say it tastes like prawns?) and ginger ants from Brazil, among others. It is just so exciting to think that there is a whole world of flavour we haven't explored yet.
I tried deep fried crickets while in a Cambodian market a few years back and didn't find them disgusting - they were salty and crunchy, so an excellent snack. Would I deliberately seek them out again, or replace chips with them - probably not. And, to be honest, all those legs were a little confronting.
Does the type of feed affect the flavour of insects? E.G. Carrots vs apples. Is it recommended that they be purged before processing like snails?
As mentioned above and in Jacqui 's presentation, there is a need to disguise what is being eaten, to overcome an inbuilt cultural aversion, or grow up accustomed to eating insects. Have eaten witchetty grubs but BBQ'd in satay sauce, am sure I would find a live one difficult. Bogong moths were not difficult spread on toast like slightly burnt nut butter, again not sure how I would go dealing with a handful of fluttering furry fat balls ...
I'm very keen to see your PK presentation Jen - hopefully operational soon? I've sampled a few insect-based tastings in one of Skye Blackburn's Edible Bug workshops. An seen various cricket curries etc in Asia, but not been tempted - resisting them texturally more than anything.
Tarantula grilled and covered in a hot chili sauce on the streets of Cambodia - perfection, the distinction between the crunch of the legs and the almost pate of the body :). Grilled or fried crickets also a favourite. Water bugs I can take or leave.
The observations about cricket powder being more palatable are really interesting. We, me included, are happier to eat insects if they come to us as a non-descript powder. But are we really grappling with the truth of what we are eating when we hide/disguise the reality of where the nutrition comes from? And will this lead to other systemic problems down the track? Jacqui Newling's presentation is an excellent case study in this.
I loved your observation about farming insects under the same broken model of existing industrialised food systems. One of my first thoughts was "Yep, a building full of millions of monocultured insects...what could possibly go wrong?...". Centuries of associating the presence of insects/larvae with food spoilage will be difficult to overcome. Better crickets than soylent green though :-)
I agree - the presentation was clear, concise and educational. I think I could manage to eat insects if they were disguised in some way, like cricket powder.
I have tried crickets and while it might not be part of my diet any time soon, I know that when push comes to shove, I will happily shove it my mouth when there is nothing else to eat. I enjoyed this presentation- it was clear, concise and entertaining and educational.