A tasting menu of human-insect harmony.
For a fascinating read on arthropods and world history, check out Edward Melillo’s essay “Global Entomologies” in the May 2014 issue of Past and Present. Also, look out for Melillo’s forthcoming book on the subject.
Music featured in this episode:
“Prepared Piano,” by Jack Ladd
“Devil Got My Woman,” by Skip James
“The Okeh Laughing Record”
In 2012 it emerged that Starbucks’ strawberry Frappuccinos contained cochineal, a red dye produced from a crushed beetle.
Edward Melillo: Vegans protested in droves. Although I can't imagine there were too many vegans who were interested in consuming strawberry Frappuccinos from Starbucks.
That’s Edward Melillo, a professor at Amherst College. Among many things, he studies the history of commodities, and he tells a surprising story about the omnipresence of things insects make. Like cochineal. Also known as carmine, E120, and Natural Red 4.
EM: Cochineal, this red dye produced by this insect grown in Latin America, turns out to be a really, really important red dye in world history.
Starting in 700 BCE, people in the Andes mountains began dyeing cloth using cochineal. They somehow discovered that the insect we know as Dactylopius coccus spends its life eating prickly pear fruit, building up stupendous concentrations of pigment in a body the size of a garbanzo bean. Crushed, this bug furnishes an extremely bright and potent red dye. The Toltecs and then the Aztecs cultivated the bug to make red. When the Spanish arrived, they were captivated by the color. Cortés sent samples to Emperor Charles the fifth, and within fifty years, it became the most widely used red dye in Europe, and a Spanish monopoly.
EM: The second-most lucrative traded good in the Spanish empire, second only to silver.
The Spanish sold cochineal to everyone. The British used it to dye those redcoats that bright red. In 1860 the German synthetic mauve knocked the bottom out of the cochineal market, and from there, it’s easy to imagine synthetic dyes taking over. But they didn’t. Not entirely.
In 1990 scientists found that the synthetic Red 3, the dominant red dye in food at the time, caused thyroid cancer in rats. The FDA partially banned it then, and as of 2008 it’s totally banned in the United States. Today we’ve returned to using cochineal dye, mostly in food. Strawberry Frappuccinos no more, but it’s often the red in red jelly beans.
It’s also in much imitation crab, berry yogurt, and ruby red grapefruit juice. Simply put, we’ve never come up with a better synthetic. It’s easy to imagine that we’ve moved into an age of synthetic self-sufficiency, that we can make everything we need, but over and over, this turns out not to be true.
EM: Insect-produced commodities in world history turn out to be absolutely crucial.
Despite insects’ bad rap, Ted says, there’s a world of sensations for which we owe insects: the sights, sounds, and tastes of the secret insect economy. So in this second part of our inquiry into insects, a tasting platter of the world insects make possible. Bug bites, if you will.
Most of the world eats bugs. Not just bug byproducts, but whole bugs. In America, we’re just starting to broach that topic. Until I talked to Ted Melillo, it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder why we’re so hesitant.
EM: I think one of the things that makes westerners really unsympathetic to bug eating is that we're not used to the crunch and then the goo. I think that combination has been tough for western—and by that I mostly mean Euro-American—palates.
But, Ted says, in many cuisines, the idea of a separate food category for bugs would seem strange.
EM: It would be sort of like saying, do you like eating vegetables as a whole, rather than picking particular vegetables. And yeah, I like certain vegetables and I don't like others. I'm not a huge fan of cauliflower, for example.
Bug to bug, there must be so much difference to taste. Yet America’s young insect cuisine often involves masking taste as well as texture. Perhaps you’ve heard of cricket flour. It’s pulverized crickets, often described as a “game-changing protein” for its energy efficiency relative to most meats we eat. To make one pound of beef, it takes 2000 gallons of water. It takes just one gallon to make one pound of cricket meat. But then, of course, you have to find someone who wants to eat a pound of cricket meat.
A few startups are banking on convincing American palates that there’s nothing gross about cricket flour. It seems to me that it’s largely a question of good disguise. Take the startup Six Foods, and their flagship product, Chirps. Chirps are essentially tortilla chips made of bugs. But the bug bodies, their dangling limbs, their crunch, and their goo, are obscured. We only get the pleasant association of the chirp, the cricket’s song.
And at least to the untrained eye, the chips themselves betray nothing of their insect origins: they take the highly legible shape and taste of a triangular chip dusted with seasoning
PG: You want to open it?
I tasted them with my girlfriend, Manon, and her brother, Jules. I must confess: we felt like adventurers.
PG: Let’s do a quick visual first? Those dots are chia seeds.
Jules Lefèvre: Not cricket?
PG: Not cricket bits.
ML: Kind of mild.
JL: But it’s not bad.
PG: How are we feeling about the fact of eating crickets? Is that one anyone’s mind at all? The fact that we just ate some bugs?
ML: Yeah, kind of.
PG: What are you thinking about that?
JL: I have next to no emotional response to the cricket thing. It doesn’t even—
ML: I can picture that box of swarming crickets from that pet store, Guppies to Puppies, where I once saw a box full of crickets, but it’s not necessarily, it doesn’t necessarily translate, for me, into the chips.
PG: But, so, okay. So, is this, right here, the label—
ML: I love the label.
PG: —it’s doing the work of distancing that box in your mind from the chips that you’re eating.
ML: There’s a picture of a little bug, a cute little bug.
PG: You like the cute little bug?
ML: And it says “One cricket per chip,” which is kind of cool. I don’t think that’s gross. I’m like, oh, that’s kind of neat.
We also tried Exo protein bars, from a Brooklyn startup called Exo. Exo bars also contain cricket flour, cloaked in the recognizable form of a Power bar.
PG: Peanut butter and jelly, apple cinnamon, cocoa nut, and blueberry vanilla.
Our friend Charlotte joined the taste test.
Charlotte Heyrman: I would think they would sort of taste like shrimp.
In their packaging, Exo deemphasizes the bodies of insects even more than Chirps. If you grabbed an Exo bar off the shelf in the store, you could miss the fact that it contains crickets. We started with the apple cinnamon variety.
ML: Very chewy.
CH: Springy, almost.
PG: I feel like this is what all bars taste like, though. They all have that texture of, like—
CH: Tastes like a gym bar.
But, of course, there’s always the psychological dimension. These foods also have to contend with the worried American imagination.
CH: Knowing that there are crickets, every time I sort of crunch on something—
CH: I feel a little bit—
PG: I think that’s apple, though, because the crickets are pulverized.
The other three flavors tasted similar. We found them no different from any other protein bar you’d pull off the shelf.
PG: Were the crickets present at all, for you? As a final question.
PG: They weren’t really on my mind at all. I didn’t feel squeamish at all about this.
CH: But when you’re eating a steak, do you think about crickets? Or, the cows?
PG: When I’m eating a steak, I think about crickets. No, I guess not, that’s the point. If you’re thinking about the cows too much, then you wouldn’t eat meat.
Maybe it’s a double-standard: for now, for me, there’s certainly a greater distance between “cow” and “beef,” between “pig” and “pork,” than between crickets and cricket flour. In my mind, the bugs are present in a different way. They’re more real, despite the great efforts on the part of Six Foods and Exo to disguise them. This might change with time. It’s happened before.
Exo cofounder Greg Sewitz pointed me to the example of sushi. Before the 1960s, few people in the US had ever really encountered raw fish or sushi before. So one or two sushi chefs decided to make sushi less foreign. There’s some debate over whose idea this was. But the chef or chefs in question decided to invert the traditional sushi roll, which has chewy seaweed on the outside. Instead, the seaweed hid inside the rice. Instead of raw tuna, the roll used avocado, which has a similar texture and fatty flavor. This roll was called the California Roll, and because of it, many Americans happily eat all kinds of sushi today. Sushi had to teach us how to eat it.
I think of our insect cuisine as immature. I’m fascinated by the idea of someday tasting insects as insects, no longer masking the taste behind sugars and salts, but seeking out different species and strains for their particular flavors. I feel like ants today, we’ll say, but not those black ants again. As Ted Melillo jokes in his essay “Global Entomologies,” terror may become terroir.
Well, we don’t entirely have to wait. Producer Daniel Nass sends this taste of the Cambodian arthropod economy.
[Daniel Nass begins narrating]
That’s the sound of tarantulas hitting the frying pan in the kitchen of Phnom Penh’s Romdeng restaurant. Head chef Hak Sokhoeun’s menu is full of inspired takes on the classics of Cambodian cuisine, but for many of his customers, the crispy tarantulas, or aping as they’re called in the Khmer language, are the reason they’ve come.
Spiders are a popular food in Cambodia, Sokhoeun says, and most Cambodians eat them. We decided to serve tarantulas in this restaurant because we want allow tourists in Cambodia to try them too.
Sokhoeun may be the first to bring the street-side snack into a sitdown restaurant setting. And as a result, Romdeng attracts a clientele who might otherwise never dare to eat a palm-sized spider. But Sokhoeun’s recipe isn’t far off from the traditional preparations found in markets and food stalls around the country.
When a batch of live tarantulas arrives at the restaurant from nearby Kampong Cham province, each one gets rinsed in a bowl of water and killed with a firm pinch. Next Sokhoeun tosses them in a marinade made with minced garlic, palm sugar and salt. Then they go into a pan full of oil, where it takes a couple minutes for them to fry to a crisp.
The tarantulas are served three to a plate, along with a simple garnish and a popular dipping sauce made of black pepper, salt, sugar and lime juice. Sokhoeun says they pair best with beer or red wine, and he recommends eating each one in a single bite.
He hands me one, fresh out of the frying pan. It’s black, about two and a half inches long, and fried to a perfect crisp.
DN: [Crunching noises] It’s really good.
HS: Very good?
Really, if you’ve ever enjoyed the satisfying, salty crunch of anything deep-fried, then you’re probably capable of enjoying fried tarantulas. They’re small enough to eat in one bite, but complex enough that you can also tackle them piece by piece—there’s the crunchy limbs and head, but also the abdomen, with a crispy outer layer and a gooey, slightly sweet inside. A number of food writers have compared the taste to soft-shell crab.
But spiders have a bad rap in the west, and tourists visiting Cambodia are more likely to regard the fried tarantula as a thrilling rite of passage than a casual snack. There’s an entire sub-genre of YouTube videos dedicated to people’s panicked first encounters. These are the sounds of a taboo being violated:
Male voice: Ahh my god, look at it. What is it…daaah.
Female voice: Oh my gosh. You guys. You guys. You guys.
Female voice: [Moaning]
Male voice: Uhh my god.
Male voice: Oh gross!
Female voice: [Shrieking]
But these YouTubers, having cast themselves as brave adventurers, are eager to demonstrate that they’re up to the challenge. As with any hero, they confront adversity and emerge transformed.
Female voice: It’s good!
Male voice: It’s a little like chicken… chicken liver.
Male voice: It’s good. [Chewing noises] It’s good, man.
Female voice: It tastes kinda fuzzy, but the rest of it’s okay.
Female voice: It wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t so bad! Let me hug you! [Laughs]
Tarantulas: not so bad after all. Unless you’re Gordon Ramsay. When the celebrated British chef sampled one, he compared the taste to bile and spit it out in front of a crowd of dismayed villagers.
GR: [Spitting noise]
Male voice: It’s, ah, bitter?
GR: Uh, yeah, it’s very bitter.
You’d never know it from these clips, but fried tarantulas don’t exist to gratify thrill-seeking tourists. For many Cambodians, they’re just a beloved snack.
In the town of Skuon, widely known by the nickname Spiderville, market tables are heaped high with fried tarantulas and crowded with customers.
The area’s residents have been eating tarantulas for generations, and according to a vendor named Lain, the snack has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity, drawing arachnovores from across Cambodia.
The number of customers is growing, she says. It’s about the local recipe. The tarantulas we sell are delicious, so that’s why people are coming here.
The famous local preparation involves coating the tarantulas in a mixture of salt, sugar, chilis, and powdered chicken soup before putting them in the deep fryer. The most delicious and highly coveted tarantulas are the pregnant ones.
In a normal season, Lain says, one tarantula costs 1500 riel, or about 35 cents. But in December or January—breeding season, when the tarantulas are full of eggs—the price can nearly double.
The local customers who come to Skuon’s spider market aren’t there on a dare, or to film themselves. They’re there because tarantulas are a food that they enjoy—a food that’s celebrated, but also ordinary. For her part, Lain says she eats tarantulas every day.
As international brands like Burger King and KFC spring up in Phnom Penh, tarantulas, along with a huge array of other traditional snacks, are facing growing competition. Yet they remain popular among Cambodians from all walks of life. There’s a whole spectrum of flavors, textures, and sources of nutrition that westerners are missing out on—unless they’re willing to swap theatrical disgust for a since attempt at appreciation.
On a Friday night in Phnom Penh’s riverside area, I met a Cambodian family of three eating fried crickets, another popular snack. Twelve-year-old Pagna told me that she loves crickets—she’s been eating them her whole life—and she offered a word of encouragement for outsiders who might find themselves intimidated by Cambodian cuisine.
Pagna: Nah, it’s not that weird. It’s just our food. Our traditional food. We can eat it anytime.
[Piers Gelly resumes narrating]
Daniel Nass is a journalist based in Cambodia.
Here in America, we already eat shellac, a resinous secretion of a bug.
EM: In that case it's Kerria lacca, this insect that's raised on fig and acacia trees in southeast Asia.
On packages, shellac’s called E904. Like cochineal, it’s a non-toxic culinary staple.
EM: Shellac is on everything.
It makes jelly beans and candy corn shiny. It’s often the shine on coffee beans and lemons. When you buy an apple at the supermarket and you wipe off that waxy glaze, you’re wiping off shellac that probably came from Thailand. It’s in pill casings, and it’s also a wood varnish that’s used just about everywhere—
EM: from floors to musical instruments—if you look at a violin, it's covered in shellac.
It’s on the key pads of woodwinds, too. It’s in lotions, shampoo, nail polish, lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara, labeled as “gum Lac.” Embalmers sometimes use it as a non-toxic substitute for formaldehyde.
EM: It's in dental products, even.
It’s the pure blues and greens in fireworks. But shellac is best known, though I didn’t know this until recently, as the sound of insects. Listen for the hiss.
From the 1890s to 1962, most recorded music lived on 78 rpm shellac records, cakes of stone, clay, dirt, wood and even bone, all shellacked together. For seventy years, listening to music usually meant listening to the sound of insects.
On the face of it, listening to shellac records is awkward and inconvenient. Unlike a hard drive, unlike the cloud, a shellac record holds a tiny amount of music.
Amanda Petrusich: They hold about two to three minutes of music on each side.
That’s Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price, a book about collectors of rare shellac records. She brought along a record to show me.
AP: Here, give it a hold, give it a hold, if you want—you can feel, unlike a vinyl record, which is fairly pliable and forgiving—78s are quite brittle and rigid. So if you were to drop that, it would shatter, as if I were to drop this coffee mug.
Unlike the weightless mp3, this shellac record felt heavy. It was strange to think of music as made of stuff, as depending so heavily on a physical home. But shellac records have bodies and distinct characters that can vary wildly depending on their physical composition and their history of use. They insist upon their materiality—a materiality that depends on the work of insects.
It’s usually easy to not notice the insects hard at work inside our culture, but shellac records constantly remind the listener that they are physical things, made of other things. They’re short, they’re bulky, they’re fragile. And then there’s the hiss.
AP: There’s been a commercial resurgence of interest in vinyl records and people will talk a lot about the warmth and the so-called texture of analog sound. It’s not really true of 78s. I think people think it will be. They think here’s this old archaic format and it will sound so beautiful when I drop that needle into it, and in fact I think the opposite is true. 78s are hard to listen to. They’re really obscured by a lot of noise and static and crackle. Even the clean ones.
It’s only a step or two from the sound of shellac to the bugs behind that sound. If this is the sound of insects, in a sense it’s their culture as well as ours. It’s their history, too, tangled up in these amazingly dense objects. It’s sound as history. In the age of the mp3, of the cloud, we value cleanness. We want nothing between us and the song. But what if that distance, that hiss, is in some ways the content of the song?
AP: I think for a certain type of listener, there’s something about hearing time in those grooves, and sort of feeling the full weight of this thing as an archival object, as a sort of emission from another era, and there’s something kind of ghostly and beautiful about it. You know, with an mp3, they’re so sort of anonymous and perfect and while surely there are advantages to that, there is some sense that it just kind of exists untouched. You know, it’s sort of out of reach, and a 78 is the total opposite of that. You are gonna hear every hand that’s ever touched that thing. If you think about the ultimate utility of art as being a thing that can make us feel less alone, there’s nothing more beautiful for me at least than that communion, you know, of dropping a needle into the groove of a record and hearing in those extra-musical sounds, every other person who’s listened to that record before you. I don’t know, I mean, it makes an MP3 seem, for me, really lonesome.
When you listen to a shellac record, you’re with company. Some of that company is the company of insects, though we might not realize it. Amanda and I discussed the odd fact that no love redounds up on the bugs.
PG: There are very few people who are friends of insects, you know—
And as if on cue—
AP: Speaking of an insect.
AP: Sorry. That was a big roach!
PG: That was a large cockroach.
AP: Yikes. Look at that. We were calling them out!
PG: This is a confirmation of our—actually if it was a mammal, it probably still wouldn’t have been okay.
AP: It was making a run for my tote bag. So I have not made my peace with insects entirely. They still creep me out a little.
Until we Americans make our peace with insects, we can look, listen, and even taste for the insect in the machine. It requires us to think materially, to be thoughtful readers of the materials around us. I hope it makes us think differently about the insects around us, too. Here’s Ted Melillo again.
EM: Human-insect relations have certainly not been characterized in their entirety, historically, by ones of devastation. There’s tremendous symbiosis and cooperation among human and insect commodities in world history.
We haven’t seen the whole picture. It’s a picture in which modernity hasn’t nearly made us as self-sufficient as we like to think.
EM: Some of the ways that we've been taught history, this march of progress away from sort of farming societies and smallholder agricultural societies, towards these kind of high-tech versions of friction-free capitalism actually are not the global reality. Reevaluating that picture, I think, turns out to be very important in kind of, assessing where the world is.
November 1, 2016