Edible Insect Experts on… the History of Eating Bugs

Justin Butner

Justin Butner

Brooklyn Bugs 2017 featured fifteen edible insect experts and proponents speaking on a range of relevant topics. They represent a diversity of backgrounds, expertise, and involvement with the field. The following is the first in a series of topic-specific articles woven from the threads that ran through their individual talks. The Edible Insect Experts on… the history of edible insects.

You have likely heard about edible insects prior to this article. The chances are good that the topic came up on your radar in the past couple of years and you have been seeing and hearing more about it in the last year. So, you might think that insects as a food source is a relatively recent development.

You might be surprised. Though it has been breaking into the Western mainstream only recently, it has been around in the West longer than you might think. And, in many parts of the world, people have been eating insects for as long as there have been people.

“I think of insects as the classic example of foods that have been with us throughout our entire history, and well before our history,” entomophagy expert Dave Gracer explained. “Something like 80 to 90% of primate species target insects as a food source.”

Beyond Gracer’s talk, experts have pointed to examples of primates using tools to better reach and consume insects. Some have theorized that it may have even been a cyclical process. Primates consumed readily-available insects, which gave them an easily-digested, high-nutrient food. This, in turn, allowed their brains to better develop, which may have led to advancements, such as the use of tools. Primates then used the tools to more easily acquire insects, which further accelerated the process of brain development. This process may have contributed to the eventual evolutionary leap to humans.

Throughout human history, there is documentation of insects as part of the human diet. Fany Gerson, founder of La Newyorkina, highlighted just one example as she talked about the Codices — pre-Columbian and colonial-era tomes of Mesoamerican food and the surrounding culture. The authors “recorded as much information as possible. They recorded how many varieties of certain types of fruit they found. Or herbs. And insects were certainly part of that. There were around 50 varieties that they were able to classify.”

Little Herds founder Robert Nathan Allen pointed out that when modern-day chefs like Gerson and Brooklyn Bugs founder Joseph Yoon incorporate insects, “they’re drawing directly from traditions that are millennia old.”

Edible insects have enjoyed long and continuous traditions in many indigenous American, African, and Asian cultures. But, despite being largely forgotten by European countries for a large portion of modern history, the idea is not new for them either.

David George Gordon, better known as The Bug Chef, referred attendees to the first English-language book written exclusively on the topic — Vincent M. Holt’s Why Not Eat Insects? He provided a few good reasons — beyond an interest in the topic — to check it out.

“I love the way this guy writes. I love the way in the 1800s they were so much more eloquent with their style. ‘Why not eat insects? Why not indeed!’” Gordon mused. And, for the cost-conscious, he quickly pointed out, “It’s free on Google Books.”

“In the 1880s in England, the climate — the socio-political climate — was not that different from what we’re experiencing today… It was a time of food insecurity… It was also an era of mass media. They didn’t have the internet in the 1880s, but what they did have (were) radical changes in printing capabilities. And all of a sudden, common people could own books… It was also a climate of moral obligation. Victorians really had this strong feeling that they should be helping others.”

And how should they help others? In Holt’s book, eating insects “wasn’t a glamour thing. It was a pitch about helping people who were less fortunate than ourselves.” Though this view of eating insects is a bit naïve by today’s standards, at least its heart is in the right place.

And what about the United States? Lou Sorkin of the New York Entomological Society brought the spotlight back home with a story about the organization’s centennial celebration, complete with an edible insect banquet at the Explorers Club and presentations about entomophagy. “At that point in time, back in 1992, it was very different. We had a table as big as a chair set up. But now,” he said, gesturing to two tables behind the rows of seated listeners, “you can see the enormous number of insect products that are now on the market.”

We have come a long way in the U.S. regarding our excitement about edible insects. Gordon recalled his experience with authoring one of the central works on the topic. “The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook came out almost 20 years ago. And, I had no idea when I wrote that book that I’d be in a room full of people who were impassioned about eating bugs. I sort of thought I was one of the few weirdos in the room when that book came out. Nowadays, there’s this whole movement.”

Yes, there is.

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