The first time I cooked fish with the heads on, my daughters were not amused. Being landlocked, American children they were unaccustomed to coming face to face (quite literally) with their food. With a little nudging, they got over their revulsion fairly quickly and dug in. But when I recently suggested trying meal worms, the resistance was significantly more pronounced.
Two billion people around the world consume insects regularly, from Central America, to Africa, to Asia. But eating insects isn’t exactly mainstream in America. It’s on the culinary fringes. For several centuries in the Western gastronomic world, the notion of eating bugs was seen as something you keep toddlers from doing, as a dire last resort when faced with starvation, or as a form of dietary display (think lolly pops with a grasshopper inside). But consuming insects may be making its way into the dining habits of the US, slow as it may be. The shift owes its emergence to several different trends: the high-protein diets favored by bodybuilders and athletes, the popularity of things like the paleo diet, and the belief that American millennials are more adventurous in their approach to food. Even so, the growth of a bug-laden diet is slow in the making.
But why hasn’t insect-eating become a part of this culture sooner? For many, probably the majority, the idea of eating insects, grubs, etc. is a challenging notion. I think visual context has a fair amount to do with it. Bugs have negative cultural associations in the West. They’re often associated with decay, evil, or a lack of cleanliness. They represent something outside the purview of culture, something primitive and uncivilized. And so we reject them at a glance. We’ve seen the same thing we offal and unusual cuts of meat over time, as the process of butchery becomes less obvious and less “desirable” cuts find their way out of the meat counter. Bugs, like kidneys and brains, are too foreign, too close visually to the realities of food production, and so we get squeamish.
But there is a shift underway as people reclaim dietary exploration and turning the exotic into the norm. Sweetbreads are returning to the menu (at least in upscale restaurants and gastropubs) and butcher shops are on the rise. Which is in large part why cricket flour, which is made by milling whole crickets into a coarse or fine powder, is serving as a gateway ingredient to full-fledged bug-eating. It is a transitional meat, carefully ushering us into a more open approach to bug consumption. But no matter how physically different cricket flour is to the actual insect, there is still a cultural bias against bug consumption preventing cricket flour from going mainstream. So what is to be done?
I think there are two central players in the bug business. The first, pivotal players in fighting the existing cultural bias are chefs since they have the capacity to further jumpstart the ingredient’s popularity and navigate how it is used. Over the last few decades they’ve transformed “trash fish” to favorites on the menu, turned BBQ into fine dining, and made garbage-to-plate foods approachable, if not loved. With the transformation of the celebrity chef into something of a cultural explorer, people are being introduced to foods in a friendly way – there’s simply less shock when we see it on a screen being eaten by someone we find entertaining and informed.
The second are cultural influencers in a broader sense. That seems obvious, but the point isn’t to focus on things like programmatic spends. Rather, it’s a matter of defining an array of people who are helping drive legitimate cultural shifts rather than trends. Most young people are much more accepting of the idea of unfamiliar ingredients than their parents. In fact, it’s become kind of a cool thing to do. And having a much broader range of information and entertainment sources, they also have a broader range of influencers and entry points to exposure.
There has already been a noticeable shift in how people are viewing insect-based products. Three years ago, if you wanted to cook with insects, you had to find a specialty store or go to a pet store to buy reptile feeder crickets. Today a whole industry has begun to evolve to meet the rising demand for sustainable insect protein. Indeed, the demand has been higher than anticipated over the past two years as the normalization of cricket-based products continues. The trick will be to normalize it rather than reverting to novelty status.