Eating Insects Detroit

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.

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Chocolate glazed donut with ant sprinkles, photo by Gina Louise Hunter

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.

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Cricket kebab. Photo by Gina Louise Hunter.

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.

 

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Mealworm fritter on cricket risotto. Photo by Gina Louise Hunter.

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.

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Thai-style coconut curry soup with wild rice, mealworms, and silkworm pupae. Photo by Gina Louise Hunter.

 

Rethinking School Lunch

USA School Lunch: Applesauce, chocolate milk, hash browns, and chicken nuggets, from http://interestingemailforwards.blogspot.com/2009/05/school-lunch-from-around-world.html

It has been many years since I last confronted a school lunch. While I can recall some spectacular lunchroom antics from my school years, I do not remember the food with any pleasure at all. Not the greasy pizza. Not the canned peaches served, mysteriously, with revolting cottage cheese. Not the jello. Well, maybe the jello, but more as a projectile than as food.

I have no idea where the food came from. I don’t know if it was cooked locally or distributed by a central kitchen. To be honest, I was not really paying that much attention at the time. There were more important things to consider. See my point about jello above. In any case, nobody seemed to care. Students were meant to eat and move on. We did.

Food activists have been trying hard recently to make people more aware of what kids eat in their school lunches.  Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, for example, started a campaign in California to get kids involved in producing their own food. Beginning over a decade ago with an “edible schoolyard” in Berkeley, Waters created a foundation (the Chez Panisse Foundation) that focused on improving school lunch by making it a real part of the curriculum.  Another famous chef, Jamie Oliver, launched a campaign to improve “school dinners” in the United Kingdom and has had some notable success as well as some colorful resistance. He also turned his campaign into a kind of reality TV show and brought it to the U.S., much to the consternation of the folks who make school lunches in Los Angeles.  There have been many more local efforts to improve school food around the country, too many to note here, and quite a lot of blog traffic on the subject, including this site devoted to school lunches around the world. There has been some notable recent research in this area as well. Janet Poppendieck’s recent book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (2010, University of California Press), provides very useful insights into the history of and debate around school lunches in the U.S. Wendy Leynse has studied and written about the place of school lunch in France, where it seems to hold a more important place in school curricula. The Food Museum Online has a very comprehensive exhibit devoted to school lunch reform that is very much worth exploring.

One of the more striking recent developments in this movement, however, has been an effort to turn kids into school lunch activists. Here in New Orleans, a group called the Rethinkers have, since 2006, involved actual kids in efforts to rethink (whence the name) public education. One of their central issues has been school lunch.  In 2008, the Rethinkers put together a list of 12 recommendations for the local public schools and managed to get the superintendent to agree to most of them.  They have worked quite effectively to keep their recommendations in the public eye, creating recipes with chefs to suggest for the schools, meeting with Aramark (one of the enormous corporations that holds local school lunch preparation contracts) to persuade them to use local produce and issuing reports evaluating the food served at schools around town. Their most recent report provides a detailed evaluation of the food at several local schools, along with policy recommendations, critiques of where lunch food comes from and very good analyses of why food and the dining experience in schools should be improved. The entire excellent report is available on line.

It is interesting to see what the Rethinkers think is important.  Here is a summary of their 12 recommendations for schools:

  1. Use real utensils (no more sporks).
  2. Buy fresh, tasty food that is minimally processed.
  3. Use ingredients that have been sourced within 200 miles of New Orleans.
  4. Put more New Orleans and Louisiana dishes on the menu.
  5. Provide better vegetarian alternatives.
  6. Stop using Styrofoam.
  7. Develop school gardens and grow some food for the school.
  8. Compost leftovers.
  9. Design school cafeterias to be welcoming places where you might like to eat.
  10. Provide sinks where kids can wash their hands.
  11. Provide enough time for kids to enjoy their food and the company of their friends.
  12. No silent lunches. Food and dining should not be used to punish students.

The key thing to note here is that this is clearly about a great deal more than what students will get to eat. It is about where their food comes from, how it is prepared and disposed of, the dining context and the educational experience itself. It is about getting students, teachers, administrators and parents to be more self-conscious about food. In New Orleans, a city that is very self-conscious about food in general, this movement is helping remind people that kids do not have to leave behind their own culture at the school doors.  And by getting hundreds of kids involved in evaluating school lunches and rethinking what and how they eat, the Rethinkers are already succeeding in putting food on the curriculum.

One last thing worth noting: the never-ending debates about the crisis in public education in the United States usually focuses on issues like standardized test scores and what many people see as the “fundamentals” of education, like reading and math. Food is about as fundamental as it gets. The Rethinkers are calling attention to this.

Posted by David Beriss