From Pest to Plate: An Essay on Eating Bugs, Slugs, & Insects

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The slug recoiled in horror, seemingly just as scared that his comfy—if crunchy—bed of green lettuce had been disturbed, as I was that he was on it. He recovered more quickly than I did, returning to slithering about, leaving a faint trail of slime on my chivito. Translating to ‘baby goat,’ a chivito is a the Uruguayan national food: a sandwich in which mayonnaise, ham, steak, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese are stacked upon each other without regard to either cleanliness of shirt or heart-health of the eater, all while packed into an oversize hamburger bun. Slugs, which, according to my handy-dandy Spanish-English dictionary translate as babosas, have no place in traditional versions of the chivito. Uruguayan food tends toward watered down versions of German and Northern Italian cuisine (think ham and cheese, mostly peering out of or up from pale carbohydrates including, but not limited to potato, bread, or pasta). The babosa incident, early in my time in Uruguay, did serve a valuable purpose: it kept me from drowning my culinary misery over the bland cuisine in jumbo sandwiches. It was also not my only bug incident in Uruguay.

At that point in my middle-class, American life, filled with dried pasta and lettuce that came triple-washed in plastic bags, bugs were a sign that something was wrong with my food. The idea that bugs could be my food, rather than invaders of my food had not yet crossed my mind. I was a college girl whose diet generally involved ramen dinners washed down with buckets of beer, thus necessitating the hangover-curing breakfast sandwich at the dining hall the next day. Lather, rinse, repeat. If any bug could even have crawled into my late-night breadsticks order, surely it would have fallen off in the bath of ranch dressing they took en route to my mouth. Accidental bugs were not entering my food, and the concept that they might be there on purpose was still years away. But the second time I ran into bugs in Uruguay, I actually considered eating them.

“I smuggled them in from Argentina,” my Uruguayan friend’s dad whispered conspiratorially to us as we sat down to a creamy pasta dish. My eyes widened and my heart quickened as he reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out a hamster-sized bag of red pepper flakes. Spice! Flavor! Color! I double-checked that my mouth was closed so nobody would catch me drooling. After lightly sprinkling his own pasta with the contraband, a barely visible amount, like someone building up a resistance to a poison, he passed me the baggie. Smiling, I started throwing the red gold onto my food. I looked down, with love, into the sea of flakes, rising and falling with the—movement of the many tiny worms that had invaded the bag? I had a hard decision to make: pretend I don’t see them and get a few sweet, sweet bites of flavor, or break the news, as I should, and lose the opportunity to remind my tongue what it means to be alive? After a moment of soul searching, I did the right thing and politely pointed out the worms, trying to hide my disappointment. But it was a seminal moment: the first time I considered eating a bug voluntarily.

While my time in Uruguay may not have made me worldlier, it offered me a deep appreciation of any food, cuisine, or culture that had even an iota of flavor. Shortly thereafter, I did finally eat a bug: on a nature tour in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, I nibbled a lemon-y tasting ant straight off a stick. There was almost no detectable texture from the fingernail-clipping-sized creature, making it an easy sell. Wait, back up. The bug had no bad texture AND it tasted like a familiar, loveable all-American food? Perhaps these bug-eating heathens could be onto something?

The difficulty in translating bugs from creepy-crawlies into food is an issue of ignorance throughout modern American culture. In a New York Times article, famous eater of ‘bizarre’ foods Andrew Zimmern called it a “psychological handicap.”[1] While correct, he and others—see Fear Factor—don’t help by fetishizing the practice. It is not weird or bizarre by the standards of the people for whom this is part of their daily diet, for the Poblanos who enjoy chapulines (fried grasshoppers from Puebla) with their beer or the Ghanaians who make bread from termites (very high in protein—higher even than beef[2]). It was a lesson I came to slowly, on the journey from babosas in my chivito to lovely lemonade ants.

I’d venture a guess that most Americans, if they ever think of bugs as a food source, assume that people who eat them do so out of necessity, from poverty and lack of other food sources. Having traveled around the world in search of unique foods and the most delicious things around, I dispute that.

Following the lemon-ants incident, my mind was more open. Perhaps it was while eating Egyptian-style lamb brains in Queens or chewing on grilled uncleaned pig intestine at a Southeast Asian outdoor market. It finally got through my head that people eat bugs (and slugs, snails, pig intestine, and brains) because they’re delicious. I began to seek out opportunities where bugs were offered not just as crazy things for tourists to ogle (see Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing), but cooked and respected for their flavor, texture, and culinary value. Bamboo grubs might look like tiny worms, but they taste like potato chips. Wasp larvae are somewhat less flavorful, but incredibly fun to eat: pop them from their honeycomb-shaped home and bite in, letting the liquid spurt out like those old Gusher fruit snacks. One large, cricket-like bug I ate in Laos surprised the table as it sang with a light lavender flavor. These small creatures, the six-legged invaders of personal space, tasted like food. Eyes closed, mouth open, I imagine it would be difficult to discern a well-prepared insect meal from any other tasty but new or foreign treat.

Even with my top priority for foodstuffs satisfied (great taste), I’m sad to say, I don’t see the insect’s journey from pest to plate being a quick one here in the land of Happy Meals. It took the lobster two hundred years to go from “filthy, bottom-feeding scavenger unfit for consumption by civilized people”[3] to the gastronomic star that it is today. Surely at least two features of bugs-as-food are top notch in today’s food-world concerns: they’re extremely healthful, with high protein (most are considered superfoods), and sustainable for long term harvesting (they don’t use up water resources the way cows do[4]). But I’d say there is one real sign of hope that the tide is very slowly turning in Americans’ attitude toward bugs: They’ve been given Angelina Jolie’s blessing[5]–she states that her kids eat fried crickets like they’re Doritos.


[1] Gordiner, Jeff, “Waiter, There’s Soup in My Bug,” The New York Times, September 22, 2010, D1
[2] Smithsonian Institute, BugInfo, Information Sheet 92: Insects as Food for Humans 
[3] Schonwald, Josh, “Why You Should Love Grasshopper Tacos and Kelp Pasta
[4] Michels, Spencer “Bugs for Dinner?
[5] Sass, Cynthia “Are Insects the Future of Food

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