Newsflash, America: Almost everybody eats bugs but us.
Differences in food cultures have often been used to reinforce cultural identity and stereotype the people and cultures in warmer climates.
It may have surprised you to read about how the large Brood X cicadas, emerging after 17 years underground, make for a delicious meal. But in fact, insects are a staple of diets around the world, and we’re just catching up.
Cicadas for dinner? It’s about time!
Other cultures have known how enjoyable insects are for millennia. Today, 2,000 species are eaten by more than 2 billion people. In every corner of the world, people are dining on bugs like sakondry, mopane, grasshoppers and, of course, cicadas. Many cultures even consider them a delicacy — because they are.
We’re just now starting to truly understand the positive impact that deliciousness can have on the planet, because many insects are both more nutritious (rich in digestible proteins, key amino-acids and micronutrients) and far better for the environment than livestock, which can require a lot of land, water and feed.
And most of the edible bugs you’ll encounter actually taste really good. I promise. Cicadas have a nutty, pork-like flavor — if you prepare them a certain way, they can even resemble a giant meaty sunflower seed. Sakondry are known as “the bacon bug” because they actually do taste like bacon. Chapulines (grasshoppers) have the flavor of a sweet, smoky tender jerky with a crispy chicken skin exterior. Green ants have a zesty quality.
There’s also none of that squishy stuff you might associate with eating an insect. Their texture is like other meats when cooked, and their legs and wings crisp up in the heat like chicken skin. It’s just meat; an often-overlooked meat that’s one of the keys to creating a sustainable food system. So, if they’re good for the environment, good for you, and taste great, why haven’t they caught on in America until now?
Unfortunately, until now, for many people in this country eating bugs was gross. While shows like “Fear Factor,” and even the classic playground dare, sensationalized America’s aversion to eating bugs, our alienation of insects as food — and fear and disgust toward insects in general — has far deeper roots.
While eating insects is common along the earth’s equator, it has likely always been rare in northern latitudes. The cold climates of Northern Europe don’t support the same ample, biodiverse, year-round insect populations that are common farther south, and many insects found within our warm(er) homes have been seen as pests or signs of rot in foods we stored throughout the winter.
These differences in food cultures have often been used to reinforce cultural identity and stereotype the people and cultures in warmer climates. Even though 80 percent of all animal species on earth are insects, we try not to think about them at all, and when we do, we generally reduce their incredible diversity to “bugs,” even when those insects aren’t bugs (such as butterflies), or even insects (say, spiders). These biases and blindspots have not only limited our own experience of insects as food but have also undervalued insects as an agricultural resource to combat food insecurity and biodiversity loss.
I’ll admit it, I was once hesitant to eat insects, too. But after I was served a plate of sakondry halfway across the planet a decade ago, I’m now toasting, frying and whipping up insect sushi and fondue like anyone else on the global block. I’ve met very few people who don’t eat cicadas again after trying them. It’s usually nothing more than the mental hurdles that prevent us from reaping the benefits (unless, of course, you have a shellfish allergy).
Those hurdles are coming down right now, in large part due to Covid-19 vaccines beginning to slow the pandemic within the U.S. We are, like these cicadas, shedding our skins — i.e. masks — and beginning to venture out into the world. After more than a year full of loss and a lack of choices, we are now seizing them. People are trying new things — and one of them just happens to be chowing down on cicada tacos.
But it’s bigger than Brood X just being trendy or people feeling like they’ve crossed a bold new frontier; people actually want to learn about why we should eat insects, and all of the benefits that come with doing so. In every interview I’ve done for my cicada dishes, which have traveled around the country, I’ve been asked almost immediately about the sustainability benefits, and how insect eating can be a step towards solving some of the issues our planet is facing.
That is a seismic shift, and leaves me with little doubt that, at least on this front, we are turning the corner. It won’t be long before you’re seeing frozen insects in your local supermarket and munching on a bowl of bugs at your local bar. Or, if you’re like me, packing a bag of cicadas in your kids’ lunchboxes.
Our recognition of the interconnectedness between our health and that of the planet is increasing. And where we once might have used novel foods to distance ourselves from “others,” our food culture is now defined by the very diversity that makes this country great. So we are turning to bugs to improve our diets in ways that help us and the planet — bugs that reinforce our wonder in the world and our eagerness to get outside to share a fun meal with friends and family. We all need a change for our collective good right now, and this one comes pan-fried.