I stopped eating red meat and poultry as a teenager. I occasionally eat fish but primarily have a vegetarian diet. This makes perusing a menu quick work because I know what I do and don't eat—at least until this week, when I was faced with the question: Do I eat insects?
My vegetarianism is mostly grounded in decades of habit, so I found myself floundering for an ethical framework. Basically, I don't eat anything I might want to pet or name, and thus far have yet to want to do either with insects. I do have, though, a benign relationship with bugs. I relocate spiders, avoid stepping on ants, reposition beetles stuck on their backs and, on at least one occasion, cooed the sentence, "Oh look! It's a little baby," when I saw a small slug oozing away from a larger, possibly parental slug.
The kickoff event featured chef Fernando Olea, who provided baby grasshopper taquitos (Oaxaqueños, which he serves at his restaurant, Sazón) and presented a tray of other edible insects he plans to incorporate into his menu, including weaver ants, zebra tarantulas and Manchurian scorpions. Olea explained that his menu acknowledges the custom of eating insects in Oaxaca, Mexico, a tradition dating back to the Aztecs. "It's part of my culture," he said. Resistance to eating insects, he told me, is basically in one's head. "The mind is the one that controls all our senses."
While eating bugs is a culinary convention for many cultures, it's also touted as a potential food source for the earth's burgeoning population.
After Olea's presentation, John Formby, an entomologist, broke down insects by the numbers—their taxonomy and physicality: Insects have three body segments, three pairs of legs and one pair of antennae (yum?). Insects make up 67 percent of known species; there are 1 million known species of insects, compared with 4,680 mammal species. Of these, 2,000 insect species are eaten by humans in 113 countries.
The growing human population and concomitant issues of food scarcity drive, in part, the rising interest in insects as food source. By 2050, the human population is expected to reach 9 billion. Insects are high in protein, iron, calcium and healthy fats (and they're low-carb!). Moreover, insects are a more environmentally friendly food source than, for example, cows: They require less feed, less land, less water and less time to harvest.
Fun fact: The FDA already allows for bugs in food. For example, an average of two larvae of three millimeter in length in canned corn, or an average of 225 insect fragments in boxed macaroni and cheese. Formby also shared photos of more sophisticated insect cuisine: a cricket, mealworm and grasshopper burger from the UK; a queen ant egg tostado from Mexico; and black ant guacamole via New York City.
As Formby spoke, I thought about the 2013 sci-fi film Snowpiercer. Spoiler alert: Post-apocalypse, surviving humans live on a train, divided by class. Eventually, the lower-class folks find out the protein bars they've been eating are made from insects. Horror ensues, even though it's also revealed that before they had insect protein bars, they had resorted to cannibalism.
Snowpiercer, in other words, was super dopey. But it fits with the general thesis presented at Digest This by Violet Crown Cinema Manager Peter Grendle, who kicked off the event with a short lecture titled: "Sci-Fi 101: On the Origin and Concept of Science Fiction as a Genre, Sub-genre, and Prophetic Narrative Device, or Why America Enjoys Paying Money to Strangers to Scare Them with Ideas."
As Grendle humorously raced us through movies such as A Trip to the Moon, Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Gattaca and The Day the Earth Stood Still, he spoke about the tension between viewers' interest in and fears of science (space exploration, robots, genetics experiments) and our ability to engage with emergent ideas when they are presented with artistic license in a fictional context.
"The inspiration for a lot of those films was humanity's fear of conquering space or the pressure that comes along with finding something new and untapped in life through our history or our future," Grendle said when I spoke with him later. "Hand-in-hand with that success and pure orgasmic confrontation between man versus science [in such films] comes the question of, how does this actually affect our actual future?"
Grendle told me he took home some of the stand-alone dried grasshoppers Olea served as snacks and fed them to his children without telling them what they were. After they'd eaten them, he told them they were bugs and watched them freak out.
I tasted the baby grasshopper taquito and did my best not to freak out, though I admittedly have the palette and possible mindset of a 5-year-old. It was spicy, and had I not known it was made from insects, I would not have been able to tell. Olea told me the taquitos pair well with mescal. I may have to try that in the future.