In most parts of the world, insects constitute just another category of the many dietary options available to people. In some cultures, in fact, insects are considered delicacies, and rather than being quickly swallowed with a pinched nose when other food sources are not available, they are sought after, prized, and savored.
There’s a word for it, of course. Entomophagy. The dictionary definition of the word is, unsurprisingly: the savage practice of eating what no civilized person would ever consider food. Yes, the thought of it grosses me out. Yes, on a very cerebral level, I understand that it shouldn’t bother me at all. But when it comes to images of, for example, furry little spiders with too-tickly legs briefly deep-fried to get a crispy exterior and a sensuously juicy taste explosion after that first crunch, I can’t quite seem to envision myself making the transition from squeamishly eyeing the little critter on a plate to actually picking it up, tilting my head back, and dropping it down the hatch.
There is no rational explanation for this. So they say. Insects are highly nutritious, providing more protein, vitamins and minerals, and being lower in fat than other sources such as beef or chicken. In terms of husbandry, they are also less expensive to raise: a pound of market-ready beef requires about ten pounds of feed to produce, while a pound of delicious insect meat can be raised on less than two pounds of feed.
And as for the actual eating, if other cultures can do it, why can’t we?
Aye. There’s the rub. Social conditioning. You see, it happens in more areas than merely our culinary approach to insects. And much of that conditioning, much like insect eating, is so ingrained in us that we rarely even consider the possibility of doing otherwise.
I don’t remember ever being taught by my parents not to eat bugs. I don’t recall having that lesson in school or in church, either. I can’t think of anyone, ever, warning me of the social, moral, psychological, or even digestive dangers of consuming insects.
I do remember, as a child, catching grasshoppers and barbarically sporting with them. My older brother and I would pluck off one back leg and then put them down and laugh as they tried to jump. We would tear off their wings. Sometimes all their legs. We would stomp on them, squishing them on the concrete path that led to our front door and then kneeling in morbid curiosity to examine the remains. We would tease our younger sisters with them, dropping them into their hair. We would squeeze them tightly in our fingers and watch in fascination as a small drop of brownish liquid oozed from their mouths. “That’s soy sauce,” my brother told me once. “Try it. It’s yummy.”
“No! Gross!” was my only reply. I shuddered to think of taking that tiny brown bubble and placing it on my tongue. It never once so much as occurred to me to actually try eating a grasshopper. Certainly, the stories circulated about eating chocolate covered ants, even chocolate covered grasshoppers. Frog legs. But that was always something that someone in a far-off land did. It was never an option for us. Never for me.
Yet I can’t think that’s universal. Do children in cultures where bugs are considered delicacies squirm at the thought of one day enjoying bugs as their parents currently do? In cultures where bug eating is an everyday part of life, do parents have to encourage their children with words familiar to us in terms of certain vegetables: “No dessert until you finish your ant pupae and wasp larvae! And I’m serious this time!”
We humans are amazingly complex and adaptable beings. We adopt the mores of our culture often without being explicitly told what those mores are. We conform, often without trying and without thought, to the standards we observe around us. And later, if we ever confront those cultural standards, we find they are so firmly ingrained within us that we consider them universal human nature rather than a product of our particular culture.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about eating insects. No. That’s not true. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about social customs that are so ingrained within me that I can’t quite bring myself to violate them, even when, as with eating insects, I know that it might even be better for me to break with custom. Like entomophagy, these customs are often so hidden that we don’t ever see them as customs, but even when we come face to face with them, can we actually bring ourselves to countenance their violation? Can we actually stomach the thought of crunching a grasshopper between our teeth?
I have several “insects” that I recognize in my life. My observance of the Word of Wisdom, for instance. I haven’t yet indulged in an alcoholic beverage, though I expect some day I will. I drank caffeinated tea almost by accident for the first time the other day. It had a strong and unpleasant flavor that was at the same time richly nuanced in a way that I thought to myself, you know, I can see myself actually coming to enjoy this. I realized a few weeks ago that I have been so blind to not drinking coffee that it never even crossed my mind to take advantage of the free coffee provided at my workplace. But, like dropping a worm down my throat, I still continue to balk at the idea of actually pouring myself a cup of coffee.
Another, bigger “insect,” maybe a big hairy spider, is marriage and family. What social conventions surround the institution of marriage that I have adopted without thinking? Is divorce bad because it’s bad? Or merely because society–in particular, my religion–says that it’s bad? What about extramarital sex? I have for almost all of my life held closely a belief that families are ordained of God and that the most important thing in this life is the sanctity of the family. That an upstanding person can do no better than to protect and defend the family. I knew I would never be one who was selfish enough not to make whatever sacrifices necessary to preserve the family. And yet here I am, my head resolutely back, my mouth agape, with a big hairy spider dangling frighteningly close. Delicious? Or gross? I’m not sure I know the answer.
Then there are the scorpions and centipedes. Masturbation. Pornography. One night stands. Illegal drugs. Alcoholism. Gambling addictions. If we’re eating insects, should any be off limits? If so, why?
Other insect-aversions are more difficult to see. These are things that feel more a part of the social fabric and the social underpinnings of society. Selfishness. Arrogance. Lies. Theft. Scheming. Like all good civilized people, I try to avoid these things without ever really being conscious of the fact that I do, without ever being conscious that it is, in fact, an option. I don’t know if I’ll always be this way, but I find that I am glad to think of these things as distasteful. I am glad, in this case, not to be an insect eater. But is it only because I’ve adopted the belief that little bugs are disgusting?
I think the natural answer to questions of entomophagy would be: if you like the way it tastes, eat it. If you don’t like it, don’t. In fact, that’s largely why I’ve been thinking about this topic at all. How do I know what I want in my life? How do I know what I like? I suppose I could just try something and then decide if I like it. But that only highlights other problems. First, how can I be sure I’ve even thought of something as an option when society may have already conditioned me against the idea so much so that I can’t even consider it? And second, even for those things that I have been able to consider, in a society that doesn’t eat bugs, how can I know which bugs are worth eating? How do I know a certain bug isn’t poisonous? Or what if, through ignorance, my first bug is so nasty-tasting that I swear off bugs altogether?
How do I know what rules dictate my approach to life, when they may be so unconscious I think of them less as bug-eating and more as gravity? How do I know which of the rules I recognize as rules are worth breaking? Just because I know that some cultures eat bugs, does that mean that their favored delicacies have to be incorporated into my personal diet? Even if I realize, for instance, that it’s okay to drink alcohol, does this mean that I can’t still find plenty of good reasons not to drink?
I’m not sure there are any easy answers to bug eating. I’m not sure that I would want any easy answers, either. My religion had all the answers. When I rejected the precepts of that religion, I also rejected “all the answers” that went along with those precepts, and to have someone else come up and give me a new set of “all the answers” would be shirking my personal moral responsibilities just as surely. The beautiful thing about life is that it is open to exploration, discovery, and most of all, independent pathfinding. I want to find my own path, even though I may end up eating my fair share of disgusting bugs along the way.