Photo: Cesar Rincon
“WHAT’D YOU DO YESTERDAY?”
“Went to the Night Market,” my roommate, replied.
“Ah,” I said, “I keep meaning to do that.” Our summer internship in Beijing was coming to an end, and the Donghuamen Night Market was a sort of tourist’s rite of passage. “You try anything?” I asked.
“I ate a scorpion on a stick,” she said. “Decided to skip the spiders and maggots, though.”
“Yeah. Some of them were still alive.”
“Nope. Nope nope nope.” And that was it. I didn’t get to the Donghuamen that summer. I just never woke up and thought, “I’m gonna eat some maggots today.” I’ll never make it there on any trip back — it shut down last year, apparently when tourists finally realized that actual Beijingers don’t eat bugs. The Market existed solely for visitors who wanted to dare each other to eat weird shit.
But I always regretted not seeing if I could do it. So I told Kae Lani Kennedy, our social media editor here at Matador, that I wanted to eat bugs on camera, and she said, “Okay.”
Why Americans don’t eat bugs
What made me finally decide to go for it was this video:
Humans, it turns out, have been eating bugs for as long as we’ve been eating anything else. They’re everywhere, they’re relatively easy to catch, and they’re high in protein. It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution that we stopped seeing bugs as food and started seeing them as pests that would destroy our crops. The humans who moved out of the tropics became even more separated from them — nature was harsher in the colder parts of the earth, so it had to be kept out of our shelter and homes. Bugs were nature’s way of trespassing into our safe, sterile, human-only zones.
People in the tropics, though, never stopped eating bugs. An estimated 80 percent of the global population eats bugs as a regular part of their diet. Westerners like to think of this as a cultural quirk, like the natives in the less civilized parts of the world are eating weird junk to freak us out, a la chilled monkey brain soup in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But the culture behaving irrationally is ours.
As the TED video that turned me into a bug-eater points out, we eat plenty of weird stuff already. Lobsters are basically sea insects. They look as weird or weirder than your everyday cricket. We also eat oysters — slimy, amorphous blobs of goo that we shoot straight out of their salt-and-grime-encrusted shells.
There’s no good reason why we should be squeamish about bugs, but not lobsters or oysters. It’s merely a matter of getting over the “ick” factor and normalizing bug-eating. And as it turns out, there are a lot of great reasons to eat bugs.
Bug-eating is the future
The reason, of course, is climate change. Raising livestock contributes a lot to greenhouse gases (cow farts contain a lot of methane, which is even worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide), and it also takes up a lot of arable land which could be used for more efficient foods. This, along with a growing animal rights movement, is part of the reason so many people are becoming vegans or vegetarians.
Bugs, it turns out, are a great replacement. They are high in protein, they are lower in fat than meat, they are don’t produce much in the way of emissions, they are super cheap and easy to raise in comparison to livestock, and they can feed on our food waste — making them little edible recyclers.
The only real reason we won’t eat bugs is because of a fairly irrational taboo. But taboos can be beaten — it used to be considered taboo in the United States to buy life insurance (it still is in places like China — placing what is basically a bet on human life is understandably considered bad form), but a concerted advertising campaign ended that in the 1840’s.
I eat bugs
Kae Lani did some research and found a place in Manayunk, a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia that would serve us bugs. It’s called Taqueria Feliz, and Chef Tim Spinner told us we could film him cooking up the bugs.
Most Mexican joints in the US don’t serve chapulines, a fairly common dish from the state of Oaxaca. Chapulines are crispy grasshoppers, and are usually seasoned with some mixture of salt, lime, garlic, and chili powder. Once they’re grilled up, they basically taste like your typical bar snack — salty and crunchy.
Spinner allowed us into the kitchen to watch him cook. The grasshoppers were not prepared in a way that made them look like something other than grasshoppers. He just threw them onto a hot skillet, drizzled lime juice on them, and let them get nice and toasty. He said that most of the people who order the chapulines do so on a dare, and usually after a few drinks. He served us ours on a taco. It was — much to my surprise — pretty damn good. We filmed the experience live on Facebook (we had some problems with sound quality, but we eat the bugs at about 10 minutes in).
Once you get over the hyper-awareness that you’re eating bugs, it is not significantly different from anything else we eat. Spinner gave us a bunch of sauces to put on our tacos — habanero, chipotle, salsa verde — and served the tacos with a guacamole puree. It made the difference: if they hadn’t been well-prepared, I wouldn’t have been as jazzed about them as I was when I left the restaurant.
We’re a long way from being a culture that regularly eats bugs. But the hurdles aren’t as big as they might seem. Bugs — like literally every other food on the planet — are downright tasty if prepared right, and we might just save our planet if we eat a bit more of them.