Sunday, February 19, 2012

Eating Bugs

Equipped with thousands of tiny teeth the furtive slug rasps through bok choy, leaving a trail of slime behind. The mollusks even find their way inside heads of lettuce, munching undetected until harvest time. I dunk the heads in a sink full of frigid water, swishing to unloose slugs of all sizes and smiling in satisfaction as they swirl down the drain. The juicy morsel is on the dining list of insects and vertebrates alike, but I have no appetite for the thought, let alone the reality of eating a slug. And yet the escargot, a snail purged of its stomach contents and fattened on cornmeal, has achieved gourmet status. Once or twice a season, a garden slug manages to hold on tight and survive the water bath I subject it to, as well as the subsequent preparation process. It rides out to a table on a nine-dollar salad. There is no amount of skilled finessing that can turn such a situation from a dining disaster into a positive realization. “This is authentic farm-to-table dining,” is the rational conclusion to be drawn from the moment. But we are not rational when it comes to bugs on salads. 

Nutritionally speaking, there are good reasons to eat bugs. A cup of cooked caterpillar provides 100% of the daily requirement of iron, copper, zinc, and thiamin. Tanzanians eat honeybee larvae along with the honey, and benefit from the higher protein content. West Africans feast on termites, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, and caterpillars. In Bali, dragonflies are charcoal grilled. It is only westerners that recoil in horror. Vincent Holt, author of a bug-focused Victorian Cookery Book, suggests stripping locusts of heads, legs, and wings, and sprinkling them with salt, pepper, and parsley. Fried in butter and finished with a splash of vinegar they make an excellent dish, he writes. 

I am intrigued, but not quite ready for fried grasshopper. On coming upon a small colony sucking the juices from a tender spinach shoot I place a single aphid on my tongue and savor the nothingness. Tasteless, soft, almost imperceptible … it is not an experience that inspires recipes, but not one that provokes repulsion either. If the aphid population is kept in moderation—no easy trick—I have no qualms about harvesting the spinach. There is the danger that, despite double-washing, an aphid or two may end up on someone’s salad plate, but, I now know, this will not affect taste. Aphids suck sap and exude sugars; what is the downside to eating them? The FDA agrees. The food defect action level for aphids, that is, the point at which frozen broccoli is deemed defective, is 60+ aphids per 100 grams. In other words, when one eats about a cup of broccoli, one might also be eating 59 aphids. 

This would surprise most consumers; in this modern age food is expected to be unsullied. At the same time, we favor products vaguely labeled “all natural.” How many consumers realize, as they sit down to dinner, that growing food naturally means accepting that insects that naturally favor the foods we grow are very much a part of the process? Some will be part of the product. 

In the greenhouse, aphids appear sporadically in great numbers. When the succulent center leaves of romaine become specked with tender green bugs it is my cue to plant a non-host crop, such as carrots. With two greenhouses, I switch susceptible crops back and forth, attempting to stay only one step behind. Wendell Berry likens farming to a conversation with nature. “If I try to starve you will you go away?” I ask my aphids. Some tomato aphids are red; some are green. These I squirt with a stiff spray of water, allowing a few to remain to attract ladybugs, which may, if I’m lucky, migrate to other plants. It’s possible that aphids will migrate as well. Pest management is a game of wits; pest “control” an impossibility. 

When scientists developed technologies for transferring genes from a soil bacterium to corn so that plants could protect themselves against insects, the Prince of Wales accused them of playing God. A bullying maneuver on multiple levels, genetic engineering certainly changes the tone of the conversation. But consumers’ desires for flawless corn and potatoes are what drive researchers to employ the same technologies that produced human insulin in their quest to fulfill impossible expectations. When health care is at stake, playing God is fair game, but when it comes to what’s for dinner, the rules change. If a consumer were forced to choose one or the other—100% insect-free food, or food grown using traditional seeds and processes—which would he pick? The problem is, we want it all. 

Someday a star in the culinary world may take on gourmet insect preparation and transform it from freaky to fashionable. If grasshopper canapes are what it takes to bring sanity to the subject then bring them on. Personally, I don't have much faith that caterpillars will ever find their way, intentionally that is, to America's dinner plates, and would settle for a less hysterical response to the occasional "unavoidable defect." If eaters, that is, human beings, were to spend more time with their hands in the soil, they may begin to feel a kinship with the miraculous system that begins with the sun and the soil and ends at the dinner table.

As plant eaters, we are in plentiful company. Aphids and caterpillars are part of the deal--we compete with them and occasionally, wittingly or un-, we eat a few. If we continue to strive for the complete elimination of all competitors we will stray further and further from "natural." Awareness of the staggering complexities involved in growing food "naturally" may or may not entice diners to sample a slug, but it will introduce the language of living systems to those who have no tolerance for imperfections. 

Step by step, we will draw them into the conversation.