Entomophagy is, quite simply, the practice of eating bugs and its more common than most people would guess. There are about 3,000 ethnic groups that currently practice entomophagy, according to Dr. Julieta Ramos-Elorduy (there are also a good number of past societies that engaged in the practice) , and the number of edible insects species is between 1417 to 1462, depending on who you asks apparently. None of that is really of any interest to me; what interests me is the evolution of entomophagy a cultural taboo in Western society.
Most people around the world consume insects- which makes sense. Insects are high in protein and are generally lower in fat than other meats. They reproduce quickly and require little assistance from us to do so. Also, they’re low in calories (100g of crickets contains only 121 calories) and are amenable to being dipped in chocolate. In spite of this, the idea of eating bugs in mainstream America evokes a lingering sentiment of disdain.
The most common explanation I’ve read is that the rise of agriculture and pastoralism transformed insects into pests and changed the way that the societies in question viewed bugs. According to this theory, the bugs became both a nuisance and a competitor for the food supply of pastoral and agrarian peoples, and because of this they acquired their status as taboo menu items. I don’t think that idea makes sense for the following reasons:
1)If insects were a nuisance, wouldn’t eating them be a useful way to capitalize on a problem that you couldn’t easily fix?
2)Secondly, not all animals that were pests became taboo food; after all people eat rabbits and birds that damage crops.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote about the topic and suggested that societies that had the means to obtain protein more “efficiently” no longer had a need to engage in the practice of bug eating. However, some societies, like those of prehistoric Mesoamerica and many in Africa, practiced (and still d0) entomophagy in addition to pastoralism and agriculture. It is also fact that some foods Westerners eat are inefficient, or at least less efficient than others.For example, lobsters are VERY INEFFICIENT food sources for Americans and they’re buglike to boot, but none of that has kept them off the menu.
Insects, as mentioned, have few calories, but they’re abundant so theoretically they would require little energy to forage (if anyone is aware of any studies that have calculated the caloric cost of foraging for insects in a diverse spectrum of habitats please give a shot out so I don’t spend two lonely hours on google scholar searching for it).That would make common insects, like ants, more efficient food than a crab or a lobster.
Instead, I believe the taboo is intimately connected to our ideas about cleanliness. Insects are symbols of filth in our culture, and the pervasive idea that they are dirty makes them inedible. Animals like rats, raccoons, possums, and other kinds of ‘vermin’ are also generally exempt from designation as food stuffs.
There’s some truth to the idea that the animals above are vectors for disease, but I would question whether or not they would remain so if we suddenly thought of them as a food source that we farmed commercially, or that the incidence of disease is REALLY greater than the frequency of e.coli or other contaminants that are found in commercial meat. Instead, I think the category is an emotionally defined one, and is as subjective as our designation of specific animals as ‘pets’; just as designating a dog a ‘pet’ makes it not a food source, so does designating a creature ‘vermin’.
In any case, the topic deserves exploration in greater depth than I’ve done here. I hope to elaborate in a future research paper. However… if you’re interested in giving bug eating a try, or you just want to giggle at food with bugs in it, here are some interesting links:
Hotlix (Been there, Ate That. I ate a cricket and it tasted like crunchy covered in sucker)
Insects Are Food (A Kind of How To Guide to Eating Crawlies)
Grasshopper Recipes w/Real Insects (Self-Explanatory)
Insects In Food (Great Bedtime Reading! Gives You Sweet Dreams!)
This blog is dedicated to the continuing story of food and its relationship to human culture. What we eat has the ability to transmit valuable cultural ideas that pay a crucial role in defining the identity of entire nations (it’s American as what? Why apple pie of course!), but it is also a mundane component of our daily lives.
From an anthropological perspective, what people eat and why reveals important information about the culture to which they belong. The spread of food items, like maize, and the cultural changes that accompany them reveals much about patterns of cultural diffusion and contact. Food taboos (like the disdain had by many Westerners towards the practice of entomophagy) often reflects social values or reinforces extant cultural practices. In addition to this food, like religion, exhibits syncretism. Syncretism is a complicated topic, but at its simplest it can be taken to mean ‘the combination of different forms of belief or practice’. When traditional cooking is transplanted to a new location it often adapts by absorbing elements of local culinary practice; the result is a syncretistic dish that reflects the unique character of the cultures that gave it life. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some foods are sacrament and are utilized in religious rituals and ceremonies.
The darkest elements of eating are seen in the annals of the ethnographic record and are entrenched in the folklore of numerous societies across the globe…
Cannibalism is my primary research interest, and it is the result of my lifelong fascination with food and the roles that it plays in human society. The goal of keeping this blog is to share my passion for anthropology and food. I hope it inspires you to think more carefully about the meals you eat and why you eat them.
This blog is a version of my Tumblr site, but its far from a clone. The site on Tumblr is designed for a general audience, but I hope the WSU rendition will provide an opportunity to explore more complicated issues in greater depth.
On that note, I hope you enjoy the new, improved The Better to Eat You With. Bon appétit.