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Something bugs me about eating insects

Opinion Column

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Over the years, I have gone to a good deal of trouble to keep bugs out of my food.

In fact, I pay a guy to come to my house every month for the expressed purpose of killing any insects that manage to get inside. The first company we used to perform this service assigned my contract to a technician of theirs who was, for the most part, too philosophical about the whole exercise.

I called to schedule the appointment shortly after we built our house. What was happening was ants were traipsing in, which is what someone or something does when it’s not invited, but shows up anyway. The ants were in formation, leading me to conclude this was a premeditated and deliberate incursion on their part.

“I don’t know why these ants are marching in and out of my house,” I told the exterminator. “I’m thinking maybe the builder must’ve left part of a sandwich in a wall and he drywalled in.”

“No, that’s not it,” the voice on the phone said. “You see, the ants were there before you built your house. What actually happens is when we build a house, we disturb their habitat.”

I was surprised, thinking surely that of all people an exterminator would not side with traipsing ants against me, ants that must have been picking up on the conversation because they were marching with even more gusto and determination.

“Tell you what, buddy,” I said. “Run down to the courthouse and look up the deed for this property. If you see an ant on it, I’ll move out. If you see my name on it, then I expect you to get out here as soon as possible and kill each and every one of these ants and any other bugs you happen to run up on.”

Now, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is pushing for us to use a new way of exterminating bugs — eating them.

If you’re reading this while you’re eating breakfast and you had a bad reaction because you just heard something crunch in your mouth, my apologies. Please do not let your imagination run away with you. That crunch, no doubt, was just toast ... or maybe cereal. Certainly it wasn’t an insect.

Well, probably not.

While a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came out recently suggesting that people should add insects to their diet, the idea’s been on the minds of the folks at the U.N., who tend to think about these sorts of things for an inordinate amount of time, for a while now. In 2008, the FAO gathered experts from around the world to Thailand to talk about “the human consumption of insects, some of which have as much protein as meat and fish.”

According to a U.N. news release on that ‘08 meeting, people around the world eat more than 1,400 insect species, with particular favorites being, in no particular order, beetles, ants, bees, grasshoppers and crickets. I’m a little surprised snails didn’t make the list, since they show up on French menus as escargot, probably so that you won’t think a lot about the fact that you’re spending a good chunk of money to eat slimy garden snails. And as slow as snails are, you’d figure they’d be the easiest to catch, unlike grasshoppers and crickets.

Crickets and I, I’m sad to say, have a checkered past. Back when I was a teenager, I had a summer job driving the mosquito-fogging truck around Newton late in the evenings. Apparently I was supposed to know that a mosquito fog would create a decidedly hostile environment for crickets and, as a result, I wasn’t supposed to get too close to the two stores in Newton that sold crickets for bait.

The next morning, hundreds of cricket corpses were discovered, which vastly limited their usefulness as fish bait. That launched an extensive investigation into the Great Cricket Killing of ‘75, which consisted of my boss, the police chief, asking me if I got close to the stores in question while I was fogging mosquitoes.

“Define ‘close,’” I confessed.

He shook his head and walked off, sticking the investigative report in a desk drawer until the statute of limitations had expired for cricket killing. I was never sure if that was because he held me in high esteem or because he didn’t want to have to drive that fogger around himself.

In any event, I only knew one person growing up who would eat bugs deliberately. What he would do is he would walk up to an ant bed, pick up an ant and eat it in front of you. Of course, he did the same thing with boogers, mud and, after watching a particularly inspiring Grape Nuts commercial featuring Euell Gibbons, pine tree bark.

That’s not to say I’ve never eaten a bug. I just haven’t done it on purpose. If you live in the South, it’s inevitable, especially if you’ve ever gone to a real dinner on the grounds at church. When you have food and people outside south of the Gnat Line, you’re going to have gnats. And the only way you can tell the difference between gnats and pepper with any reliability is pepper, as a general rule, doesn’t move.

Many a gnat went to its Great Reward when it had the misfortune of getting stuck in gravy or resting too long on a drumstick.

The proponents of bug-eating, however, say Americans just need to get past the disgust of the idea, though I seriously doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. Just last year, Starbucks caught all kinds of grief when its customers found out it was using an extract from crunched cochineal insects to color some of its smoothies and pastries, including its strawberries and creme frappuccino and its red velvet whoopee pie.

The discovery that the red and pink tints were more due to a Mexican/South American bug than raspberries and strawberries led to an online petition and Starbucks agreeing not to gross out its customers, who made it clear they didn’t want bug juice in their food and drink.

It also got me wondering what members of the U.N. eat while they’re proposing this sort of dietary change. I went online and checked to see what’s on the menu at the U.N. headquarters.

There were some tasty dishes, to be sure. Appetizers like Dungess crab, Scottish smoked salmon and smoked trout salad. Entrees included Moroccan chicken, Pekin duck breast, glazed salmon, lemon crusted cod, grilled beef sirloin, New Zealand rack of lamb, roasted veal medallions and boneless braised short ribs.

Not an insect entree or appetizer — or dessert, for that matter — to be found in the dining hall.

Looks like if they were serious about leading the way on converting to a bug buffet, they’d put their crickets where their mouths are.

Email Jim Hendricks at jim.hendricks@albanyherald.com.