Friday, January 23, 2004

Kissing slugs and eating insects

It was my uncle-in-law's 40th birthday today, and during dinner I got to talk with my cousin about her experiences at a 5th grade camp she just got back from. She got to do lots of neat stuff – visit some tidepools, kiss a banana slug, and go on a night hike (complete with an area where the students walked alone in the dark). The hike reminded me of a Card Captor Sakura episode where the kids have to walk alone through a cave and one of the teachers jumps out of the shadows and scares Sakura. Unfortunately they didn’t do anything nearly as cool at my cousin's camp (and the night path was lined with counselors hiding out of view ... lame).

What I found most interesting, though, was my relatives' disgust upon hearing that my cousin kissed a banana slug. This got them discussing various other "disgusting" foods people sometimes eat on reality shows like maggots, earthworms, and various organs. Even though my cousin seemed to not have any cares about kissing a banana slug, I can't help but wonder how conditioned to hate invertebrates she'll become after enough of this kind of talk.

This then got me thinking about a good paper I read a few years ago reporting on the widespread consumption of insects in many countries/cultures. Insects are available in large numbers, they make excellent protein sources, and they've been used as food sources (probably) throughout all of history. It seems likely that western cultures are the oddballs for disliking insects. However, as cultures become more and more influenced by western values, they absorb our hatred/disgust of insect consumption, stop eating insects, and instead try to buy much more expensive cow, pig, or chicken meat. Since the meat is now too costly, people don't eat enough protein and thus become malnourished. This, to me, is a sad example of how one culture's irrational phobias can lead to significant harm when those fears get transferred to another culture

The article also had a few other neat tidbits. When Mexican agriculture ran into a grasshopper/locust problem a while back, one of the options they considered was to hire a number of workers to pick off the grasshoppers and use them as food. Unfortunately pesticides won out. Additionally, winged termites are apparently delicious. Many people seem to consider them better than the best steaks, and thus I've desperately wanted to try them since reading the article (but haven't found any).

DeFoliart, G. R. 1999. Insects as Food: Why the Western Attitude Is Important. Annual Review of Entomology 44: 21-50.