What’s Gross?

Catie McLeod asks what’s stopping so many of us from eating bugs.

Digital painting of a mealworm hotdog

Mealworms are amongst an array of bugs now regarded – by some – as a 'superfood' — Image: Jon Tjhia

Seeing the insect is the thing most Westerners have a problem with,’ Brendan explains. ‘Even me.’

Consider eating a mango on a balmy evening, peeled or diced or popped out into cubes. Juice dripping down your chin. And then: cutting its sweetness with a spicy sprinkling of ants. Or standing over the barbecue, tongs in hand, skewered grubs roasting beneath you. Or running back to the car after a stop along the highway, clutching a hot paper bag of deep-fried crickets. There are many Australians who can’t imagine that. People on this continent have been eating insects and grubs for thousands of years, but when white settlers came to Australia they brought their aversion to eating bugs with them – an antipathy that sits deep in the Western psyche.

A friend of mine, Brendan Hales, wrote his honours thesis on edible bugs. His focus was on the prospect of introducing insect proteins to Western diets; to making insects palatable to people averse to entomophagy (the practice of eating insects). When I first learnt about his thesis, I imagined an agricultural installation at his Brunswick share house; some kind of farm underneath the Hills hoist in the backyard, buzzing with the whirr of shelled bodies and the click of many tiny wings. It turns out he purchased live crickets and mealworms from the local pet shop and kept them in the freezer. Later, he switched to buying processed cricket protein from specialty stores. It was easier to use and he didn’t have to worry about disguising the six legs.

The Many Deaths of Louie the Fly

Brendan spent weeks cooking insects and testing his recipes out on his friends. He tried all sorts of configurations: deep fried in oil, heaped on toast, ground down into a powder and mixed with flours, turned into tortillas, baked into chips. Reactions were mixed. His most successful recipe was the cricket powder chip, with the ‘bugginess’ hidden.

‘Seeing the insect is the thing most Westerners have a problem with,’ Brendan explains. ‘Even me. I was cooking the insects and eating them all the time and I still felt weird about it.’ In the West, many of us tend to associate insects not with diet but with dirt and decay. We can’t shake the feeling that they carry disease. ‘Remember those Mortein ads?’ Brendan says. ‘The bugs were always disgusting and evil and angry.’

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In 2018, the Disgusting Food Museum opened its doors in Malmö, Sweden. Visitors receive faux vomit bags for tickets and peruse exhibits of mouse wine and frog smoothies. Also on display are the maggot-filled Sardinian ‘casu marzu’ cheese, the Mopane worm from southern Africa and the Australian witchetty grub. Certain mass-produced processed foods are on display, too, including Vegemite, pink musk sticks and Twinkies. 

Disgust is a fundamental human feeling (at least, if you subscribe to psychologist Paul Ekman’s tenet of six basic human emotions). But the polarising displays at the Disgusting Food Museum show that even if revulsion is universal, its triggers are not. Insects have of course been eaten around the world for a very long time, and today an estimated two billion people engage in entomophagy. In Thailand, the red palm weevil is farmed; its grubs fried. In Mexico, fat agave worms are dropped into mezcal. In France, escargots (technically gastropods) are served dripping with butter and garlic. Well, what is actually gross?

Mass-produced quadruped meat and fish are not viable or sustainable options for meeting our food security requirements. Bugs can be part of the solution.’

In 2013, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation released a now widely cited report on insect consumption. The consensus is this: as the earth warms and its population hurtles toward nine billion by 2050, we’re going to have to make fundamental changes to food production across the globe. Mass-produced quadruped meat and fish are not viable or sustainable options for meeting our food security requirements. Bugs can be part of the solution, but some cultures are going to have to move past entrenched, and probably irrational, distaste. How do we do it?

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‘The big thing is their high protein content,’ Brendan says of his crickets. ‘One of the best chances it [entomophagy] has is in the health food sector.’ It’s true that superfood people all over the world are hailing insects for their nutritional value and their low levels of saturated fat. Insects are much more environmentally friendly than beef or soy products (at least 15,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilogram of beef, whereas one litre is required for the same amount of crickets). And as Brendan says, ‘these are the sort of people most likely to try “weird” foods anyway.’

Across the Øresund Bridge from Malmö to Copenhagen, chefs from one of the world’s most famous eateries are working on cooking bugs. Researchers at the Nordic Food Lab – led by celebrity chef René Redzepi – investigate ‘food diversity and deliciousness’ on their mission to change Western preconceptions surrounding insect dishes. Redzepi uses insects at his own Michelin-starred restaurant, the world-famous Noma, and last year catered for the listening party for Justin Timberlake’s new album, serving Hollywood music journalists grasshopper and fried ant canapés

Jessica Brown writes in the Guardian that we may ‘need to switch the message about saving the planet from altruism to pleasure’ – citing a study in which 180 participants were offered a chocolate truffle stuffed with mealworms. Half of the people were told that eating insects was healthy and good for the environment, while the others were told the insects were trendy or delicious to eat. Around 62% of the first group chose to eat the truffle, while 76% of the second group did so and described it as better tasting. 

Might devout Australian foodies line up around the block for bugs if they were presented as the Next Big Thing?

‘The trendy thing is a good way to have people try insects for the first time,’ says Brendan. ‘Chefs know how to produce them in an interesting way. It might initially have more potential than even the health aspect.’ Might devout Australian foodies line up around the block for bugs if they were presented as the Next Big Thing? Would we ever queue the way we have for burger pop-ups, or cro-nuts, or immense freakshakes? Possibly not. Then again, Western consumers once balked at the idea of raw fish. Today, hundreds of sushi restaurants are dotted across Australian cities and regional towns.

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There’s a newish restaurant called Henry Sugar on leafy Rathdowne Street in Carlton, where I’ve been told they serve insects dishes. I visit with my mum one weekend for brunch. ‘I’m, um, writing something about eating bugs,’ I tell the waiter. We’re in luck – one of the owners is there. Mike Baker comes to talk to us and brings us a sample. Baked crickets and peanuts coated in lime and chilli spice mix.

Digital painting of a spider atop an ice-cream cone

Image: Jon Tjhia

‘We originally put them on the menu as a talking point, to help with marketing,’ Mike says, as mum and I eye off the dish. The insects are undisguised and unmistakable. ‘People do order them, sometimes accidentally. And the feedback is generally good.’

He compares insects to Indigenous products like bush plums: expensive and not readily available for the layman in a supermarket. ‘People trying them in restaurants is a start, but we still have a long way to go.’

I eat the crickets. I feel I should offer something like ‘they taste like chicken’, but they don’t, of course. They’re small and crunchy and don’t really have much flavour apart from the seasoning. They’re definitely not bad.

Last year, I went to New York and ate a Twinkie. It wasn’t terrible either. In that same year I watched a friend try Vegemite for the first time. It was pretty bad, they said.

Three of the most disgusting foods in the world. It just depends on who you ask.

Portrait of Catie McLeod

Catie McLeod is a writer and radio producer. She has written creative non-fiction, articles and criticism for publications including Voiceworks, the Age and the Saturday Paper.

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