On Eating Insects, Essays, Stories and Recipes
Joshua Evans, Roberto Flore, Michael Bom Frøst, and Nordic Food Lab
Phaidon Press, 2017
335 pages, $59.95
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
On Eating Insects is equal parts textbook, essay collection, and cookbook. Even broken into clear sections, it is a complex presentation of the historically, ecologically, and culturally-loaded practice of eating insects (entomophagy). Insect consumption, and the exploration of its many facets, is complicated by the Western world’s leeriness of consuming creepy crawlies. Actually, the use of “creepy crawlies” is illustrative of our struggle with the concept; we widely deem insects, simply, as creepy. The authors of On Eating Insects explore the whopping cultural stigma surrounding eating bugs in order to bend Western thinking to acceptance, not only as a source of food, but as a delicacy.
The authors are the chefs, scientists, and researchers who form The Nordic Food Lab, an organization and physical place (a converted houseboat, originally) where members collaborate to explore the intersection of culture, gastronomy, and the “pursuit of deliciousness.” After a seminar where founding members were exposed to “a big fat ant from the Amazon that tasted like the best lemongrass you could ever imagine,” the Nordic Food Lab’s Insect Project came to fruition. This book is the result academic research (the first section of the book), researchers’ personal experiences (the second portion), and kitchen work (the conclusion).
It feels like a textbook, with clunky, large dimensions, columns and white space, summarizing the Insect Project’s exploration of the simple question, “why don’t we eat insects in the Western world?” Obviously, what we munch on differs wildly across the world; differences can even be seen from state to state in the U.S. Less obvious are how and why these different food preferences come to be.
Even less obvious within that exploration are the powerful forces of political and social power that are tangled within the discussion and exploration of how eating preferences are reinforced. While Insect Project contributors wanted to explore why insects are “a genre of food so taboo in the West that it border[s] on ‘impossible to serve’,” they also grapple with “the dominance and pervasiveness of Western cultural values” and how these values “contribut[e] to… a growing rejection in many insect-eating cultures of important and locally advantageous foodways.”
The Insect Project’s desire to pursue insect deliciousness and acceptable introduction to Western eaters opens a can of worms of colonialism and globalization in which the practice of eating insects is enmeshed. It’s clear that the contributors to On Eating Insects understand that the practice of eating insects cannot be explored outside these issues and power dynamics. Therefore, the first section of On Eating Insects—the selection of academic essays—illuminate how tangled and socially complicated the topic is.
Yes, the academic essays are a bit crusty, and the compartmentalized construction is cumbersome, but the academic portion is invaluable to the discussion. The theoretical concepts introduced bleed into the personal essays, as researchers witness these power struggles and social complexities while working with and interviewing native people during their fieldwork.
Those academic entries bridge the book from a nerdy, insect-laden Eat Pray Love riff, to a culturally responsible exploration of entomophagy. The personal essays exhibit the joy of cooking and the authors’ passions, and the recipe section shares their kitchen lab work. From observing a termite queen’s pulsing abdomen as “an eerie, shatteringly beautiful whole,” to experiencing exquisite bee brood “with faint flavors of honeydew melon, raw hazelnuts… and lingering savories” in the warm sunset, the essays imbue the book with flavor, which makes the section of fieldwork experiences (in Uganda, Australia, Kenya, Mexico, and more) easy to love.
The final section, composed of favorite recipes from Nordic Food Lab’s test kitchen and fieldwork, asks readers to actually try cooking insects. Each recipe provides a synopsis of the recipe’s creation story and chef’s inspirations, clear instructions, and stunningly elegant photos of artfully crafted dishes. However, the use of metric measurements, unusual ingredients (assuming the average kitchen pantry lacks items like fresh aromatic wood, liquid nitrogen, and jasmine petals), along with where to purchase the insects, makes the recipe section a bit alienating.
The majority of the recipes feel fit for Michelin-rated restaurants rather than the dinner table (since they were developed by professionally trained chefs) but they fail to invite the average person to try it on their own. While the book might not inspire culinary experimentation at home, it at least makes the prospect of chomping on a bag of fried crickets at a street fair, or ordering Spicy Cricket-and-Asparagus at a restaurant sound less off-putting.
The depth and complexity in On Eating Insects is unexpected. The cultural and global impact, the many voices within the practice and exploration, and the varied arguments for expanding the practice of insect consumption are given appropriate space in the book, while the simple beauty of experiencing and creating new foods that taste good is celebrated. And when the sections of the book are appreciated as a whole, they do help “creat[e] a more complex definition of food diversity and promot[e] the diffusion of knowledge,” which ultimately illustrates the Nordic Food Lab’s “vision for cooking, serving, and eating insects.”
This book is heavy and dry in many ways, but its dry bits, like the burnt remnants of ugali John Evans utilizes in a Kenyan dish, are tasty in their own ways and are full of valuable information. The heart of On Eating Insects is illustrated when Josh Evans claims during one of his essays, that “if [he] had to choose, [he] would rather leave with a hard question on [his] mind than a taste, however nice, on [his] tongue,” which may be just how readers leave this book.