Words || Nikita Jones
“Slimy yet satisfying” – Simba
I don’t consider myself a squeamish person. When I think about it, nothing phases me, needles are fine, gore is all well and good, and I even watched that scene from 127 hours without feeling a thing. And I like bugs, in theory. In The Lion King, grubs looked like lolly snakes and if you cracked open a beetle, the guts looked like that sugary goo inside Gummy Bursts. In reality, crickets are a bitch to work with and mealworms are slimy in the least satisfying sense.
When I set out on this challenge, I had my eye on this little company in Sydney that sells edible insects in the form of like, ant salt, and chocolate crickets, and mealworm flour. This would have been so much easier. They’re crushed into powders, stirred through chocolate and baked into cookies and so while the jar may say ‘ants’, it truly does not logically seem like the jar would be full of ants – and so, functionally, it would not be full of ants. I’m rather adept at this kind of delusional reasoning, it’s what has gotten me through most of my challenges thus far. However, this plan fell through. And that’s how I found myself paying for two containers of live crickets and a box of mealworms from my local pet shop.
While waiting for my card to process, the pet shop lady asked me ‘what do you have?’
I, having forgotten to google ‘what eats crickets?’ before walking into the store said, ‘what?’
She said, ‘what pet do you have?’
I said ‘yes.’ and walked out with my bugs.
Thus began the cringe that would last me through this whole challenge. Working off a Vice article (and only a Vice article) I killed the crickets by putting them in the freezer. Solid, cold, and dead, I pulled them out after an hour and was about to set out pulling off their legs when I discovered I could not physically touch them. I would bring my fingers close to their little dead bodies and then a spasm of revulsion would stop my hand before I could get closer than an inch. This was not a good sign, so early in the game.
My solution to this problem was to hold out my cupped hands, close my eyes, and ask a friend to drop a few into my palm. The ‘ripping off the band-aid’ approach. Though both of us were concerned I would simply throw the bugs right back in my friend’s face, I held back. After a few deep breaths I was able to stabilise myself before working quickly to divest the buggies of their legs before the horror kicked back in.
The next step was to boil them for a few minutes, I guess for sanitary purposes. Another bad sign arose when I, and ultimately the rest of my building, discovered that boiling crickets creates an overwhelmingly fishy smell. After this, I chucked them in the oven at like 250 degrees to burn to a fucking unrecognisable crisp, which calmed my nerves somewhat. For those following along at home, this takes anywhere from forty-five minutes to three hours depending on how much you hate bugs.
As it turns out, I found that it’s much easier to eat bugs than to touch them. I had a few worms and crickets fresh out of the oven for the snapchat story, but the rest I stirred into melted chocolate and baked into some biscuits. And although, like, I would have preferred to just eat normal, bug-less chocolate and cookies, they just kinda tasted like almonds.
Given more time, I would have done something more extravagant with the bugs, made them into a meal that really showcased their flavour or something. Over 3000 ethnic groups all over the world practice entomophagy (a term I’m glad I didn’t know before eating bugs because it somehow makes everything worse). Western culture is one of the very few cultures on earth that wants nothing to do with bugs, which is one of the weirder things you can fault Western culture with.
Despite this, Westerners actually eat a whole bunch more insects than they think they do. If you ever feel like a mildly horrifying read, look up ‘Australian Pulse Standards 2015’ and you can peruse how many insects are allowed for Australian grain produce to still be considered ‘food grade’. Harvested chickpeas, for example are allowed a maximum of 15 whole or fragmented field insects and 2 grasshoppers or locusts per 200g of produce. Think about that with your hummus.
Don’t freak out though, if anything that extra grasshopper is doing a whole lot more to improve the nutritional value of your hummus than the corn chip you’re dipping into it. Grasshoppers, mealworms, crickets, and locusts are all excellent sources of protein. Many see them as the future of food for an increasingly overpopulated planet. Pound for pound, crickets have more protein than chicken, and they certainly don’t take up as much space. In fact, bugs provide enough nutrition that it is actually possible Simba, as a growing lion, could survive on Timon and Pumbaa’s diet of brightly coloured grubs through his cub-years without eating any stray meerkats. He’d have to eat a minimum of six every minute, though, so Timon’s not totally in the clear.
Aside from the nutritional benefits, a quick google will find you article upon article about the economic and environmental sustainability of bugs. Pest harvesting has long been used as an alternative option to pesticide for farmers in Mexico. When Western researchers discovered the irony in using purchased chemicals to destroy ‘pests’ rich in 75% animal protein to save crops which contained no more than 14% plant protein, they began a study to test just what the rest of the world was missing out on. While some of the research was oversimplified, not taking into account, for instance, the economic value of the crops over the pests, the farmers who participated in the study were able to significantly increase their income through the dual source of produce.
Bugs are lucrative. I payed a total of $15 for probably somewhere in the realm of 200g of bugs. Of course, this was pet store prices, but even wholesale, insects are similar in price to beef. Apparently locusts in particular are priced like caviar, which, as someone who has distinct memories of sprinting through a paddock during a locust plague, seems just bizarre. When prices are this high, and demand is this low, is bug farming really where the future is headed?
As it turns out, the insect industry’s reputation for being highly environmentally and economically efficient is, in actual fact, a little bit too optimistic. The current methods for raising and harvesting bugs actually require more manual labour and food resources than, say, poultry. While the bugs I ate had been raised on sawdust, the ones used for the kinds of tests that spit back stats like ‘35% protein conversion rate’ require a diet of corn, soy, and grain-based feed. Essentially the stuff you could just cook and eat for yourself instead of feeding it to crickets for a couple of weeks.
Of course, these are issues that are probably easily solved by the streamlined innovation of capitalist production in the free market, and so I have no doubt that we’ll be downing cricket caviar and worm wine in our futuristic sky-bars. But, at the moment, bugs aren’t quite the perfect answer everyone seems to think they are. And it’s not just because they’re all slimy and squirmy. Though it is, I can now assure you, a definite factor.
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