Gina Louise Hunter
Illinois State University
Eating Insects Detroit: Exploring the Culture of Insects as Food and Feed, held May 26-28 at Wayne State University brought together industry leaders, researchers, activists, and “ento-prenuers” of all stripes. While insect foods are relished by people throughout the world, most Europeans, Americans, and Canadians cannot stomach the thought of eating bugs. Yet, recent years have seen the introduction of a number of insect-based food products on the North American market, such as Chapul’s protein bars made with cricket “flour.” Getting consumers to overcome the yuck-factor was one theme at the conference. A free vendor exhibit allowed the 150 registered conference goers and over 70 members of the public to sample cricket and mealworm products (pasta, cookies, chips), an insect-based meat substitute, roasted insect snacks, and a variety of protein bars. What does One Hop Kitchen’s Cricket Bolognese sauce taste like? Bolognese sauce! Crickets, the so-called “gateway bug,” and mealworms are by far the most common insects raised for human-food due to long industry experience with these two as pet feed and perhaps because they are seen as easily integrated into the North American diet.
That, at least, is the hope of conference attendees who see insects as the future of food. While a number of papers focused on market research, branding, and product development, there was a consistent undercurrent of the revolutionary potential of insects as food and feed. Insects are efficient feed converters, have a small environmental foot-print, and are very nutritious—high in protein and fats, vitamins and minerals. Farmers are still working out many of the details of scaling up production, regulations, and international trade. An open, informative meeting of North American Edible Insects Coalition allowed participants to voice perspectives on how the industry should develop—if insects are an alternative and sustainable protein source, can the industry develop in ways that uphold other alternative values such as transparency, traceability, organic production, and social justice in the food system? Attending the conference felt less like an academic exercise and more like joining a movement.
It’s a movement that is gaining momentum. Certainly entomophagy is not new. Gene R. DeFoliart (1925–2013) published the The Food Insects Newsletter from 1988 until 2000. Recently interest in insects surged with the publication of the FAO’s watershed report, Edible Insects: Future prospects for Food and Feed security (2013). Former FAO Senior Forestry Officer and coordinator of Edible Insect Program, Paul Vantomme, perhaps the international guru of edible insects, was on hand to offer insights and concluded the conference with a presentation of hope and caution on how insects might feed the world.
The conference program reveals the diversity of presenters and perspectives as well as the significant international participation. Session were a highly entertaining, if somewhat bewildering experience — in one half hour span, for instance, we heard a scientific paper on the nutritional profile of fish raised on insect feed, a market study on consumer acceptance of insect foods, and a testimonial from a “micro-rancher.” There were even a few humanities contributions: Amy Wright (Austin Peay State University) read from her piece in Gastronomica, Laura Shine (Concordia University) offered a sensorial and Latour-ian approach to experiencing insects, and David Gracer (Community College of Rhode Island) emphasized the role of stories and mini-manifestos in creating culture change.
And anthropology? According to Termite Survey, Julie Lesnik (Wayne State University) studies the potential role of termites in the Australopithicus diet but is broadly interested in entomophagy. Her broad interest was reflected in the conference, yet it was clear that most attendees knew each other or knew of each other and the conviviality was contagious. Me? I’m a cultural anthropologist interested in the insect food movement and, thanks to the conference, I’m a newly confirmed entomophagist.
With so much delicious food on hand, how could one not eat insects? Detroit food truck, Monkey Business, offered cricket kabobs, (real) ants on a (fake) log, chocolate glazed donut with ant sprinkles, and mealworm quesadillas inspired by recipes from the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook author, David George Gordon, who was also a presenter.
The pièce de résistance, however, was a five-course gourmet dinner with cocktails and wine-pairings, prepared by local chefs and sourced with insects from Detroit Ento. Held in the hip Salt and Cedar letter press studio space, the dinner featured insect ingredients in everything but the wine. Pictured here is a mealworm fritter on cricket risotto and a Thai-style coconut curry soup with wild rice, mealworms, and silkworm pupae. How did it all taste? Well, you’ll just have to get some bugs and try them for yourself.