Western media, please stop saying you are eating bugs to “prepare for the apocalypse.” It’s not original. It’s not funny. And, most of all, it’s highly offensive. Edible insects may strike us in the Western world as “bizarre food” or “future food” or not even food at all (the phrase “edible insects” has an inherent bias considering we don’t refer to vegetables as “edible plants”), but it’s totally normal to eat insects in many parts of the world, just not ours.
Every time we say something like, “I’m going to eat bugs to prepare for the apocalypse,” what it means to millions of people all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America is, “The food you eat is so repulsive to me I will deign to eat it only if humanity is facing an extinction.”
I get it. I used to make that joke too. A few years ago, I posted a video on Instagram with a similar caption. The video was of me in Bangkok, eating foods that my U.S. friends would consider shocking: crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo caterpillars, and skewered chicken hearts. I’ve since taken the video down because, as my awareness grew, it made me uncomfortable that the punchline was the culturally bigoted assumption that what I was eating was some kind of inedible last resort. It’s not. It’s normal. I bought it right outside my apartment. And it’s good. Actually, I love eating chicken hearts, bamboo caterpillars, and grasshoppers. (I don’t love the crickets. I only like them.)
The point is, who am I to decide what’s edible and what’s not? Who are we to point at something considered ordinary or even a delicacy in more parts of the world than it isn’t and say we’d only eat it if it were the last food on Earth?
Food is deeply cultural. My husband is German, and before I met his family for the first time, his mother wanted me to feel welcomed. So she went to the grocery store and asked, “What do Americans eat for breakfast?”
“Cereal,” they told her. So she bought six boxes of it.
As it turns out, I hate cereal. I probably hadn’t eaten it in a decade. I felt absolutely vindicated when I learned that people in the U.S. eat cereal for breakfast not because of any inherent value it has but rather because of extremely effective marketing. These deep feelings about it stem from my youth when I constantly battled with my mom about my dislike for cereal.
Even though I personally hate cereal, I acknowledge that it is a totally normal thing in some parts of the world.
After years of stalemate, we eventually compromised on me consenting to eat something every morning, but it would generally be the kind of food other people in the U.S. would eat for lunch or dinner. I felt very much at home when I started to spend time in Southeast Asia, where it’s completely noncontroversial to eat rice and curry for breakfast.
A decade later and a continent away, I was so touched by my mother-in-law’s concern that I ate the cereal anyway—two of the six boxes, at least—but truth be told, I would much rather have been eating assorted meats and cheeses with the rest of the family. Nonetheless, even though I personally hate cereal, I acknowledge that it is a totally normal thing in some parts of the world and that the person who told her that’s what people in the U.S. usually eat was not wrong.
Edible insects are somewhat similar—although less common. I spend several months a year in Thailand, and I talk a lot about the ubiquity of edible insects in Bangkok: on the street, at markets, in the grocery store, even at 7–Eleven. I don’t mean to claim that every Thai person eats insects every day or even ever—not any more than people in the U.S. eat cereal.
The “lack of anything else to eat” argument is … untrue on an economic basis. Pound for pound, insects are generally more expensive than chicken or pork.
But when I’m out and about in Bangkok, I see edible insects in some form or another at least once a day. At this very moment, there is a guy selling crickets, grasshoppers, silkworms, and desserts out of a scooter food truck right outside my apartment; he’s there three or four nights a week. Last night, I was at a friend’s place across town, and I saw grasshoppers, silkworms, and ants for sale alongside desserts and out of a different food scooter.
When I was writing a cookbook about edible insects and told people from the U.S. or Europe about the project, they tended to ask, “Why would you write about that? That’s so gross!” But when I told my Thai friends, they asked, “Why would you write about that? That’s so boring!”
Another common misstep people make is assuming that someone who eats insects must do it for lack of alternatives. This assertion is laughable to anyone who has ever been to a Thai night market, where on any given night there are hundreds, if not thousands, of food options—some include insects but many don’t. The “lack of anything else to eat” argument is not only demonstrably untrue on the basis of widely available food, but it’s also untrue on an economic basis.
Pound for pound, insects are generally more expensive than chicken or pork. In northern Thailand, I met a mango farmer who, upon noticing that the ants infesting his farm sold for a higher price at the market than his mangos did, began farming and selling them both. The entomophagy-famine connection falls apart under even the tiniest scrutiny, and, in fact, current research indicates that geography is the strongest predictor of whether a culture will be entomophagous (insect-eating).
When we unquestioningly assume that people who eat insects do so only out of poverty or famine, we are projecting from a place of cultural bias, not to mention … colonialist condescension.
Certainly there have been cases in which people have eaten insects because of poor circumstances, but that does not mean that eating insects is inexorably linked with poverty any more than lobsters (which were once considered cruel to feed to prisoners more than once a week because lobsters were out of favor among the British when they were associated with the lower class) or avocados (formerly dubbed the “poor man’s butter” and associated with locals before the arrival of dairy cattle from Europe to the Americas). To do so both ignores social hierarchies surrounding food and confuses correlation with causation. Often, what is considered a “food for poor people” is because its relative abundance makes it impossible to turn it into a restricted commodity and, thereby, a status symbol; it’s not necessarily based on the inherent quality of the food itself.
When we imagine eating something we have a visceral aversion to, such as insects, it’s hard for us to believe people might enjoy eating it. We think we would only eat it if desperate and presume other people must be desperate if they do it too. But people eat food other than what we eat, and they don’t do it because they lack the opportunity to eat the same things we do any more than people who worship a different god do it because they’ve never heard of ours. When we unquestioningly assume that people who eat insects do so only out of poverty or famine, we are projecting from a place of cultural bias, not to mention resembling an updated version of colonialist condescension.
Fully aware that I am presuming to speak for people from cultural groups I don’t belong to, I asked a friend of mine before writing this if I was being a jerk for calling this out as offensive. Her attitude toward edible insects is similar to those of my Thai friends. Insects are consumed from time to time in her home country of Malawi, so she finds my interest in edible insects a little silly—like making a big deal about carrots. She shrugged and said, “People eat what they eat. I don’t eat pork. I don’t care that you do. Why get upset about it?”
She’s much more laid-back than I am.
When we know people reject our kind of food, we perceive on some level that they have rejected us.
Perhaps I’m projecting, just like the apocalyptic hyperbolists I object to. Maybe I’m particularly irascible. All I know is, if people kept making “jokes” about how disgusting it is to grind up bovine muscle and smother it with hot, rotten mammary secretions (yum, yum, I love cheeseburgers!), I’d eventually get annoyed by it. Yes, I think it’s delicious, and what’s so funny about that?
Food is not only cultural but also deeply emotional. Psychological research indicates that meat-eaters tend to feel uncomfortable around vegetarians because they perceive they are being negatively judged—though it’s important to note that meat-eaters generally think they are being judged much more harshly by the vegetarians than they actually are. The point is that when we know people reject our kind of food, we perceive on some level that they have rejected us.
Mocking people’s food can be another way of mocking people. For that reason, ethnic slurs have sometimes used food as fodder (“krauts” and “beaners,” to name a couple). We need to be more mindful of the message we’re sending when we, in the Western world, equate edible insects—normal food to pretty much everyone but us—with disgust and desperation.
This post was originally published on the Bugs for Beginners blog.