Eat Bugs

The anxiety behind your hedonism.

Jerry Lampen/Reuters

This article appeared in issue #114, now available in our Blueprint for a New World Series Box Set.

As the familiar cultural world slowly, messily deconstructs itself, it was inevitable that cuisine would be transformed as well.

Of course, it began in California, specifically, in the Los Angeles area with its lively authentic Latino-Asian food culture and its tutelary genius, the brilliant, obsessed Jonathan Gold, the only food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. For her new book, Anything That Moves, Dana Goodyear, a staff writer for The New Yorker, “set out,” with Gold among her guides, “ to explore the outer bounds of food culture, where the psychological, rational, legal, ethical, and indeed physical limits of edibility are being tried—and sometimes overturned. What I found was a collection of go-betweens, chefs and adventurous eaters—scofflaws …who are breaking with convention to reshape the American palate.

“In our contemporary cuisine,” she writes, “I see anxiety behind the hedonism…After centuries of perfecting the ritual of ‘civilized’ dining, there is a furious backpedaling, a wilding,…a post-apocalyptic free-for-all of crudity and refinement, technology and artlessness, an unimaginable future and a forgotten past.”

This antinomian cuisine, she writes, “is about pleasure—pleasure heightened at the brink of calamity.” “If this is the end of the world,” one of her subjects declares, “give me a fork and a knife.”

Goodyear’s subject is the manic transformation of cooking, but a sterner issue haunts her book, for cooking is inseparable from the civilization that it serves and whose tastes it accommodates.

So far the turn to defiantly radical cuisine is largely confined to the West Coast, but a transcontinental leap is probably inevitable, especially now that Gold has joined the Los Angeles Times as its syndicated food writer whose reports from Los Angeles are likely to be picked up by eastern media. Inspired food writing belongs not to a region but to the world. “As yet, however,” Goodyear writes in a puzzling overstatement, “everyone west of the Hudson cooks sous vide,” a costly and delicate technique in which fine cuts of meat or fish, together with seasonings, are placed in sealed plastic bags from which the air has been exhausted and cooked sous vide in a heat-controlled bath so that no flavor is lost in the cooking, a procedure whose temperature is strictly governed by health department regulations in New York, as Goodyear writes. But it makes no sense to say that everyone “west” of the Hudson uses this technique, for this implies that Cosentino and his comrades are sousvidists, whereas only the most soigné restaurants east as well as west of the Hudson use this procedure. More than a mere continent separates sous vide from the new California brutalism.

Though New York lacks the intense, diverse Latino-Asian culinary culture of Los Angeles and Jonathan Gold to report on it, it has its own transgressive preparations, including drinks: a New York bartender, for example, described by Goodyear

uses a rapid-infusion technique to make a smoky marijuana-mescal, double charging a canister of mescal and marijuana with nitrous. The first charge dissolves the gas into the mescal; the second forces the mescal to permeate the bud. When the canister is opened, releasing the pressure, the enhanced alcohol seeps back out of the plant…, he told me. “It’s so illegal on so many levels that no one talks about it openly.”

Superficially, today’s apocalyptic alimentarians echo the Weathermen of the Sixties, but where the Weathermen blew up buildings and shot police officers, today’s radicals defy federal food laws, revel in unpasteurized milk, dine on fried grasshoppers, frog fallopian tubes, and Filipino balut—an unhatched duckling, cooked in its shell and eaten entire, beak, feathers, and bones.

The New York Times reports that global warming may reduce food production “by two percent each decade for the rest of the century” while “world population is projected to grow to 9.6 billion in 2050, from 7.2 billion today,” a terrifying prospect. Bugs, according to Dana Goodyear, might be the answer. “Eighty percent of the world eats bugs,” she writes.

Austrialian Aborigines like witchery grubs, which…“taste like nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in a phyllo dough pastry.” … in Vennezula, children roast tarantulas.

Fried grasshoppers have three times as much protein as beef per ounce “and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc.” In Los Angeles, “Guelaguetza…an Oaxacan restaurant, serves a scrumptious plate of chapulines a la Mexicana—grasshoppers sautéed with onions, jalapeños, and tomatoes, and topped with avocado and Oaxacan string cheese,” Goodyear writes, “and Jonathan Gold readers are coming in to order them.” In Washington D.C, “José Andrés, a winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award, makes a very popular chapulín taco—sautéed shallots, deglazed in tequila; chipotle paste; and Oaxacan grasshoppers.”

Andrés “sees bug-eating as both a gastronomic experience…and a matter of survival. ‘We need to feed humanity in a sustainable way,’ he says, ‘Those who know how to produce protein will have an edge over everyone else. World War Three will be over control of water and food, and the insects may be an answer.’” More likely we shall be the insects’ answer. Insects are essential components of the ecosystem: Andrés should think twice before reducing them to protein.

“During the London Olympics,” Goodyear writes,

the celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, has repeatedly been named the best restaurant in the world, served a tasting menu at Claridge’s, the five-star Mayfair hotel. The eight-course meal cost more than $300 a head and featured chilled live ants, flown from Copenhagen, on cabbage with crème fraîche.

The ants tasted citrusy, like lemon grass, wrote a food critic for Bloomberg News. “That Mexico developed a taste for bugs,” according to the ecologist Daniel Pauly, may have arisen from population pressure and “a lack of alternatives,” the same pressure that, in the absence of large mammals, led their Aztec ancestors to eat one another before the conquistadores prudently ended the practice.

Jason Epstein, former Editorial Director at Random House, was a founder of The New York Review and of the Library of America. He is the author of Eating: A Memoir. Above is an excerpt from Food Tips for Christmas—his review of Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves—published in The New York Review of Books in December 2013.