Alison Kirkham knows that bugs have a PR problem.
Millions of Americans are at minimum uneasy about coming into contact with insects, if not terrified or disgusted by their presence. And when it comes to actually eating one of these critters? Forget about it.
But why is it that in much of Western culture, crustaceans like crab, shrimp, and lobster are considered delicacies, while the idea of eating their arthropod cousins – insects (beetles, grasshoppers, bees, mealworms, and crickets, among others), arachnids (spiders and scorpions), and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) – commonly elicits disgust?
That’s what Kirkham set out to study, determining that cultural influences play a major role in shaping attitudes toward entomophagy, the eating of bugs.
“As Americans, we’re so opposed to insects being food,” said Kirkham, a graduate student in anthropology. “I’ve had people be like, ‘You are disgusting for wanting me to eat insects.’ People sometimes get angry and they have very visceral reactions like, ‘You want me to do what? You want me to eat a bug?’ Which I find pretty interesting.”
That’s a common response, and arthropod experts know their best efforts to educate the public about these creatures can only do so much to combat that revulsion. Disgust is an impulse that sometimes can be too powerful for even logic and reason to overcome.
It’s one thing to learn facts about arthropods – how they are often cleaner than you might expect, or how they can be inexpensive, high-protein sources of nutrition. It’s another to cross the mental hurdle of placing a bug in your mouth, biting down, and swallowing, especially if your cultural traditions condition you to find it a disturbing act.
“There’s a range of things which are more likely to become disgust elicitors for particular people, and bugs are right in disgust’s wheelhouse – they can sting you, they can be poisonous, and they’re sort of creepy-crawly, so they can also be indicative of disease transmission,” said Daniel Kelly, an associate professor in philosophy whose work focuses on disgust. “So that’s all stuff which disgust is going to be really sensitive to, and it’s going to be easy to become disgusted by anything in that range.
“The idea of putting something in your mouth, you can just ramp up the disgust. Stepping in dog (feces) is disgusting, but even the very thought of eating it is worse. So there’s a connection between disgust and the mouth, and there’s a connection between disgust and various forms of uncleanliness or potential for infection.”
That puts bug experts in an awkward position – part educator, part psychologist – as they work to both teach us about the millions of arthropod species that surround us and to also set us straight about their value.
“The fact that it is an uphill battle, as are a lot of crusades, has never been much of a deterrent for me because I end up having victories every day,” said Zack Lemann, curator at the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans. “I always bump into somebody whose attitude I can change for the better a little bit. So on the one hand, one can lament the fact that the vast majority of folks don’t have a great set of thoughts and feelings about arthropods. But we’re plugging away and we’re fighting the good fight, and I have fun with it.”
Kirkham worked under Lemann’s supervision as a summer intern in New Orleans while continuing her research into attitudes toward arthropod consumption. In addition to handling and caring for creatures in the Aububon Insectarium, she also worked in a presentation area called “Bug Appétit,” where visitors can, you guessed it, sample buffet-style cuisine featuring bugs as ingredients.
Dip a chip into the “Six-Legged Salsa,” with crab-boiled mealworms added to a traditional tomato salsa. Prefer something sweet? Then try the mango chutney, made from mangos, apples, and poached waxworms. It tastes like apple pie. On special occasions like the Fourth of July, there might be holiday-themed cakes and other treats available that contain insect ingredients.
Working in that space allowed Kirkham to make valuable observations concerning visitors’ attitudes toward arthropod consumption. Not surprisingly, children were overwhelmingly more open to it than their older companions.
“There seems to be a divide sometime around puberty,” Kirkham recalled. “The smaller, younger children were typically like, ‘Oh this is cool! This is a neat experience!’ And they would kind of dare each other to eat one. And then we also had a stamp that we would mostly offer to kids, but adults wanted them sometimes, too, that said, ‘I ate a bug at Bug Appétit .’ The stamp was such a big motivator. Sometimes the kids would be like, ‘I don’t know, is it going to taste gross?’ and we’d say, ‘Well try it and we’ll give you a stamp.’ And immediately they’d eat it and be excited about it.”
Teens and adults, though? Not so enthusiastic.
“From my observations,” Kirkham said, “teenagers typically just found it disgusting and weren’t very interested in eating them. We had a lot of camps and school groups, and a lot of times the kids would convince their camp counselors to eat the bugs and the counselors would do it reluctantly.”
In one unique way, New Orleans was a perfect location for Kirkham’s research. The city’s renowned culinary scene revolves around the consumption of crustaceous arthropods and mollusks.
A springtime social ritual among Louisianans involves gathering around a long table with friends and eating platters loaded down with boiled crawfish, potatoes, corn on the cob, and sausage. Dismembering a “mudbug” with your fingers in order to eat its flesh is not just acceptable, but expected behavior. Hardcore eaters even slurp juices from the creature’s head, insisting that’s where the tastiest spices can be found.
Don’t bother inviting most crawfish dissectors to sample a cricket or grasshopper, however. They might have picked apart crawfish bodies since childhood, but still find the idea of ingesting a bug to be weird.
“Another powerful force that can work in the opposite direction with disgust is foods which kind of signal group or tribal membership,” Kelly said. “So if you’re a real New Orleans person, of course you eat crawdads. That can be one way that you signal that you’re in the group, a true native.”
Those powerful tribal forces are at the center of bug crusaders’ push to make entomophagy a more widely accepted practice in Western culture. Sushi was once generally framed as a niche, foreign dish, but now it’s tremendously popular in the States. Likewise, entomologists believe that increased exposure to modern societies’ attitudes toward arthropod consumption might eventually help it gain acceptance in the U.S.
For instance, Oaxaca, Mexico is well known for its insect cuisine, offering gastronomic delights like chapulines (grasshoppers) toasted with garlic, lime juice, and salt, or escamoles (ant larvae), nicknamed “Mexican caviar.” In Cambodia, spiders are considered a delicacy. And it would not be at all strange to come across a street cart in Bangkok offering crispy, fried water bugs or worms for sale.
Those regions’ bug consumers have plenty of company across the globe. In 2013, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that some two billion people eat insects annually, with bugs serving as traditional staples of human diets in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
“There’s definitely a hipster element to it, and sushi is a great example – something that sort of catches fire and suddenly it’s very popular,” said College of Agriculture entomology outreach coordinator Gwen Pearson, who coordinates the Bug Bowl event at Purdue Spring Fest every April. “A lot of it is just that first hurdle from, ‘This is gross’ to ‘I might eat that.’ That’s the hard part, and once you’ve gotten to, ‘I might eat that,’ then it’s all downhill from there.”
While Bug Bowl features a variety of activities, from insect crafts to hands-on animal demonstrations to cockroach racing, the most notorious event is the cricket spitting competition, which attracts approximately 6,000 entrants from across the region.
“It’s very entertaining to watch,” Pearson said. “Especially the little kids because they’re just so baffled by the whole thing. They’re like, ‘You put it in my mouth and now I have to spit it out? What?’ ”
Of course, there is an edible-insect component to Bug Bowl, as well, and Kirkham is part of a group that will serve visitors the bug-based treats. Pearson said visitors typically consume about 20,000 chocolate-covered crickets at the two-day event, which makes sense given that entomophagy specialists call crickets the “gateway bug” for insect-eating novices.
The Bug Bowl will offer Kirkham yet another opportunity to observe general attitudes toward arthropods, further preparing her for what she hopes will evolve into a career as an educator at a zoo or insectarium.
Her main objectives are to teach us the facts about bugs and help the general public become less squeamish about them – including the notion that eating an arthropod might not be such a disgusting thing to do, after all.
“It’s important that people are aware that insects can be a food and are eaten as a food in other places, and those places are not primitive or bad in some way for eating insects,” Kirkham said. “Because there is that connotation that you only eat insects if you’re starving or if you’re poor or if you absolutely have to or if you’re part of some indigenous group and you’re not a civilized person. And so I want to get that connotation about edible insects out of people’s minds and realize that insects can be a food.”