Beetles with That?

In seventh grade, we did a science unit on mealworms. I’m rather hazy on the specifics of what the unit was actually about, beyond the fact that the classroom was filled with mealworms, and presumably we raised them and observed them. At the end of the unit, our science teacher brought in a special treat: variously flavoured mealworm snacks. The class almost unilaterally went ‘ewwwwwwww’ and refused to eat them. I remember being very, very hesitant, but ultimately trying the cayenne ones. I found them not terribly remarkable, as far as food products go.

The United Nations recently informed us that insects are the food of the future. They have a very rapid replacement rate, a great nutritional profile, and high caloric density. They’re also widely eaten across many regions of the world in a huge variety of dishes, and thus it makes sense to increase their representation in the human diet, because they’re already there. Insects could help resolve hunger crises, and could be an important part of adjusting to a growing global population.

Many Western people reacted to this announcement with shock and horror. Was the UN really telling us that we needed to eat bugs? How gross! Despite the UN’s carefully thought-out logic to make the reasoning behind the recommendation clear, many people were extremely skeptical, and the reasons for their skepticism ultimately came down to one simple thing: food xenophobia. Which ties directly into larger issues of racism, because hand in hand with repulsed reactions to many foods usually go very specific racialised ideas about who eats those foods and how they eat them.

Who eats bugs? Pretty much everyone except the West, and there are some notable exceptions in the West, too. For example, casu marzu is a Sardinian delicacy, a cheese made with maggots. The live maggots in the cheese are part of the flavour profile and overall culinary experience. Outside the West, insects are eaten in a huge variety of dishes. They’re fried and sold as snack foods, integrated into entrees and appetizers, tossed with all manner of things in salads, and even included in some desserts. Bugs are already a big thing for most of the rest of the world, and, yes, for some groups, they’re a vital source of protein, just as the UN points out in its report.

Westerners seem to have an aversion to insects, something the UN actually explored in the report: ‘Aside from basic human emotions, the origins of disgust are rooted in culture (i.e. ‘taste is culture’), which undoubtedly has a major effect on food habits. Culture, under the influence of environment, history, community structure, human endeavour, mobility and politicoeconomic systems, defines the rules on what is edible and what is not.’

And here we see the ties with race, because in a world where the bulk of insects are consumed in the Global South, primarily by people of colour, a cultural distaste for insects is clearly linked with disdain for the people who eat them as much as it is with the food itself. From a very young age, most children in the West are raised to believe that insects are not food, and we develop highly aversive responses to them. I certainly don’t remember insects on the table at any point during my childhood, and we ate a very diverse diet.

Even as an adult, I note that my tolerance for diverse food items from other regions of the world exceeds my father’s, illustrating that my childhood table obviously must have had limits because he wouldn’t have served foods he didn’t want to eat: I’ll eat stinky tofu, he won’t, for example. Westerners claim to dislike a wide range of foods on the grounds that they ‘don’t smell like food’ (fermented foods popular in China and Korea, for example), or that they’re ‘just gross’ (insects, animal blood). Yet, the same could be said about many of the foods we eat; my stepmother, for example, thinks cheese is absolutely revolting, because she wasn’t raised in a culture where cheese was consumed.

The difference is that as a member of a dominant culture making comments about food, I’m not just expressing the culture I was raised in. I’m also imposing views on the rest of the world; Western attitudes about what is and is not food have directly shaped what people in other regions of the world are eating, including insects. The UN notes a decline in insect consumption in some regions directly spurred by Western missionaries informing people that their traditional ways of eating, along with other traditional ways of life, were wrong. Thus ‘taste’ becomes a matter of culinary dominance more than a simple expressed preference.

The politics of taste are extremely complex, and food xenophobia is a real and significant issue for the West, even if it refuses to accept it. When condemnation of a food also involves putting down an entire culture, it becomes much more than a discussion about what appeals to you on the basis of your personal preferences and the foods you’ve been raised with. It’s one thing to say that you’re not a fan of papaya (I’m sorry, I’m just not), but another to argue that tortillas, a core staple for millions of people, are disgusting and unimaginable as a food product.

All too often, racist rhetoric gets bound up in how people talk about foods from other regions of the world. It’s not just ‘this food is not to my taste,’ but an indictment of the culture that makes it, and an expression of shock at the people who could consume such a thing. When that comes from a position of political and cultural dominance, with the West imposing its views on the Global South, it becomes yet another way in which colonialism suffocates the world with its black, stinking tentacles that wrap into and around everything.