Book Review:
Edible Insects

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Most people would rather eat low doses of poison than low doses of bugs. That’s partly why we spray crops with pesticides—because consumers want ears of corn without the earworms, and spears of asparagus without the aphids. We go to great lengths to keep bugs out of our food, which assumes, of course, that bugs are not themselves food.

But bugs are food, or should be, argues Daniella Martin in her 2014 book Edible. Martin states her central argument up front: “Eating bugs makes sense, ecologically and economically. They also happen to taste really good.” In the following 150 or so pages, she tours the globe to sample, among other things, specialty bee-larvae granola in Denmark and street-food ant omelets in Thailand. Edible joins several recent books on entomophagy, or insect consumption, but it stands out among novelty cookbooks and academic studies by presenting a vivid, accessible, and mostly persuasive case for a social movement of bug-eating.

Edible falls somewhere between storytelling and advocacy. Bugs have always been part of human diets, Martin tells us, and the book presents both traditional bug-eating venues (like a Cambodian sago grub farm) and of hip new insect initiatives (like a food truck at San Francisco’s Off the Grid market). Each chapter presents one or two scenes of bug-eating as a sort of appetizer for the meatier stuff—that is, her many arguments in favor of entomophagy.

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Most of her arguments are colorful and convincing. One familiar claim is that our food system simply can’t support additional billions of people without adding to the toxic cocktail of deforestation, excessive waste, and climate change. Though Martin oversimplifies a bit—her subtitle calls bug-eating “The Last Great Hope to Save the Planet”—she makes up for it by helping us appreciate the problem. Chapter 1 imagines a “fast-food restaurant of the future” that serves every meal with the by-products of growing, processing, and shipping. A hamburger, for example, comes with “four heaping pounds of steaming cow manure, one thousand sloshing gallons of contaminated water, and a disgusting black sludge that you recognize as the carbon released by a gallon gasoline.” An order of Cricket McNuggets, by contrast, would only come with “about a half pond of castings nearly indistinguishable from fresh soil, ten gallons of slightly cloudy water, no methane. A tiny smear of carbon.”

Edible’s vivid claims are occasionally a weakness. “Nutrition is sort of like money,” she writes in Chapter 2. “If leaves represent dollar bills, fruits are fives, nuts are tens, and insects, and other forms of flesh, are crisp fifty-dollar bills.” It’s a useful explanation, and she does consult some nutritional science to make the case: humans need a high ‘income’ of proteins and fats to energize their brain and body. But the metaphor betrays her obvious stake in equating insect and animal protein, and echoes rather than proves her skepticism of vegetarianism (Martin feels that a meatless diet is nutritionally unsound). In short, she simplifies the science according to her particular values, and in doing so runs the risk of dogmatism. (This makes sense for a stigmatized practice like bug-eating—the writers who are most willing to take it seriously are the ones who have already been convinced of its worth.)

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Martin doesn’t need to take sides on questions like vegetarianism, but it’s telling that she does. In her mind, insects can fill the nutritional gaps in a vegetarian diet; they should also be a key component of the Paleolithic diet, if we’re honest about Stone Age eating habits. Martin builds a careful case here: she’s arguing that insects could suit your existing diet like a sprinkling of croutons, rather than a radical alternative lifestyle. She’s realistic that bug eating will only gain traction if it becomes more than the fad du jour.

Arguments alone won’t start a revolution, and Martin knows that. Edible takes a stab at giving bug-eating a much needed re-brand. It’s only a first step, because most people still don’t salivate at the sound of “Six-Legged Salsa” (served at Bug Appétit in New Orleans) or “Corn Earworm Tamales” (Martin’s own dish). But Martin largely succeeds in writing an accessible book that doesn’t ruin your appetite. In fact, at her best, she might even whet it.  “The sweet miso with the toasted rice is delightful,” she writes in Chapter 7, “complemented by the creamy nuttiness of the wasp larvae.” She’s no longer an advocate in moments like these—just a smitten food reviewer licking her lips.

Text: Daniel A. Gross 
Images: girlmeetsbug.comyelp
 

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