Friday, October 31, 2014

Anything that Moves by Dana Goodyear [book review]

Warning: I am going to talk about something you may find a little disgusting.

I'm part of a food-related book club called The Kitchen Reader. (Actually, I'm its facilitator, too.) Our October book is Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear, chosen by Melissa of Melos Bookshelf. Modern Western eating patterns are so different from other cultures and times. This book chronicles some of the fringe eating that is emerging (or re-emerging) in America.

While the book has lots to say about eating organ meats, raw milk, live seafood, and so on, an issue that caught my eye was about insects. Eating insects is a polarizing issue, but probably shouldn't be.

A quarter of the world regularly eats insects, did you know? I learned that from a recent National Geographic print magazine. (Two of the pictures in this post are snaps of the September 2014 issue.) In fact, please go watch National Geographic's short animated video called Edible Insects. It's less than two minutes long. Go on, it's quite educational!

There is a long human history of eating insects, but for those of us who have not done it before there is some reluctance. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security (pdf) in 2013 to show the benefits and opportunities of insects as food. "Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries," they claim.

The FAO, National Geographic, and Anything that Moves all make a good case for eating insects. They are less energy-intensive and space-demanding to raise. "Minilivestock" have high reproductive rates and can create cash flow quickly. They are highly nutritious, highly transportable, easy to manage, and don't require a lot of training to produce.

"The question of whether edible insects can be accepted as a food item and become a part of food habits in Western societies depends on at least two crucial factors: availability and learning," says the FAO. At the moment the bigger of the two issues for me is learning. More specifically, can I bring myself to eat insects? Even more to the point, what do they taste like? Aren't insects yucky??

Goodyear reminds her readers in Anything that Moves that insects were featured on Top Chef Masters a few seasons ago when the winning dish was tempura-fried crickets with sunchoke-carrot puree and blood-orange vinaigrette. Also, the FAO points out that other previously "exotic" foods have become mainstream in the West. "Seaweed is one such food source: just a few years ago it was considered in the West as either exotic or niche, but now, in certain places, it is celebrated as a new, versatile ingredient – since it was shown to be delicious."

Some insect proponents suggest making flour with ground insects, or forming them into "bug nuggets" to make them more appealing to customers. At any rate, I've decided that I'll try some insects if (and only if) I see them locally prepared in a way that has a long history. This would be possible in Thailand, Laos, and other Asian countries, many parts of Africa, and many countries in South America. Goodyear is right when she says that "food preferences are highly local, often irrational, and defining." A good rule of thumb for all of us might be as she says: "I will eat disgusting things, but only those with long established culinary traditions."

Have you ever eaten insects? Would you?

update: I just saw this article about choosing wine to go with insect meals [March 2015].

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