Thursday, June 5, 2008

Creepy Crawlies for Green Cuisine

Scorpion scaloppine/Photo credit: TIME

Looking through my weekly TIME magazine, I found an article in the Life section by Bryan Walsh reporting from the Richmond, Virginia Broad Appetit Food Festival. Premier entomophagists (the scientific term for eating insects) David George Gordon from Seattle and David Gracer from Providence faced off in a Bug Cook-off promoting the using insects as food. While the idea of eating insects may gross out most Americans, considering insects as food is not so far-fetched in many areas of the world. In Colombia, leaf-cutter ants are eaten in lieu of popcorn at movie theaters. In my own personal experience in China, I've eaten congee cooked with sandworms (as an aside, I had my reservations about it, but I didn't want to offend my guests). Locally, you can get insects at Typhoon in Santa Monica. Don't order the scorpions though, they're so small you can't taste anything. Supposedly a good scorpion tastes vaguely like crab. The truth is, insects are a viable food source.

Now as to why insects are so environmentally friendly, just consider how difficult it is to get rid of insect infestations. The ability of insects to reproduce and survive adverse conditions also make them easy to cultivate with very few resources. They do not need to generate any body heat, so more of their energy goes towards creating edible body parts rather than metabolism. Plus if you've taken Biology 101, you know that the lower on an organism is on the trophic structure, the less energy it takes to raise.

Waxworm, Queen Atta ants and Stinkbug Salad/Photo Credit: TIME

Now why would we turn from our familiar chickens, cows and pigs to something that we typically squish underneath our shoe? By now I think most people are familiar with the impacts of our modern agricultural practices on the environment. Most people think of carbon from cars and factories when they envision global warming, but methane from cows is also a significant green house gas. Insects are also disproportionately nutritious. They are low in fat, but high in protein. Waterbugs have four times the of iron as the same amount of beef. Caterpillars served in Africa have slightly more protein than an equivalent amount of chicken.

As to the gross factor, you have to divorce yourself from the ideas that bugs are dirty or creepy. I know this is the hardest part, especially when you're envisioning crunching into the exoskeleton of a hand-sized beetle. But try to take an objective look at some of the crustaceans we eat (by the way, people who are allergic to shellfish are typically also allergic to insects). A lobster or a shrimp do not look particularly appetizing. It's only a cultural construction. Perhaps if they were in another form. Consider this bread made of a flour of ground up cicadas:

Photo Credit: Sunrise Land Shrimp

So for those of you who are genuinely concerned for the environment, recognize that your eating habits do constitute a huge strain on the planet. Be a little adventurous, try something new. Embrace cultures that have already looked to the sustainable ingredients--insects.

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