About once a week I launch a cooking project - a search for the best pizza crust, maybe or learning to fry cider doughnuts or setting up a smoker or, recently, with a friend of mine, transforming Japanese beetles into a snack food.
There are plenty of virtuous reasons to take on this type of project: expanding cultural horizons to a delicacy that’s enjoyed around the world (just not here); fighting food waste by making use of an item in plentiful supply in gardens right now; responding to the UN’s call to increase insect consumption as a more sustainable source of protein. We were in it simply because we wanted a crispy, salty something to eat mindlessly while drinking beer. . . and we knew that caterpillars fit the bill in Africa, spiders in Cambodia, grasshoppers in Mexico, so why not Japanese beetles here?
And it worked. I rolled my batch in BBQ spices for an airy snack that was like a cross between popcorn and a potato chip and really should be an American classic except for. . . well, the bug thing.
I really believe that searching for a better bar snack, instead of finding a solution for world hunger, was the best way to think about our afternoon project. In fact, going in for more virtuous motivation probably would have reduced our final enjoyment of the food.
Our brain has attitudes that shape our perception in ways unrelated to how a food actually tastes. For example, studies find that when a food is portrayed as indulgent or decadent, most people think it tastes better than the exact same food when it’s portrayed as healthy. Same goes for food that looks homemade and our brains really prefer food that’s familiar.
For bugs, our attitude can be summed up as “ick.” And when we portray insects as something we ought to force ourselves to eat on principle, or when someone tackles tasting bugs as essentially a dare, we reinforce the idea that they’re gross. . . something you would not eat for flavor.
Meanwhile other cultures treat insects as just another food category, like poultry or seafood . . . or even a seasoning. Silk worms give miso salad dressing a wonderful raw edge, like just-ripe cucumbers, and cricket flour in pasta provides a savory quality even before the sauce is added.
The attitudes we have toward our food matter. It’s no secret that the current American diet, heavy on beef and corn syrup, brings with it a host of environmental, economic, and health problems. We have many rational reasons why we should change course, most of them not involving bugs. But those reasons add up to a terrible argument if they simply imply the alternative foods are so unappealing it would take a global disaster to get them onto our plate. No amount of rationality will convince me to eat a cricket burger - or anything else - if it doesn’t taste good. Luckily, it probably does.