I was invited to speak in a symposium on edible insects at the Institute of Food Technologists conference in Chicago on July 13. Food Navigator did a report on our session and interviewed all of the participants. You can watch the video below or check out their full post here.
I am in Croatia working on my book. It's pretty romantic, actually. I sit in little coffee shops/pubs every day just writing. I couldn't ask for a better setting.
I am staying with a dear friend of mine and we see her parents multiple times during the week and join them for dinner. I have thus had most of my meals at home instead of at restaurants. Immediately upon arriving to Croatia, I began noticing an interesting cultural difference when it came to food. It really started with bananas. I personally hate bananas, but my friend eats them almost every day. Every time she would have a banana, she would offer me one, or half of hers, and every time I would tell her that I didn't like them. After about 3 days and 10 inquiries I finally convinced her that I would never eat a banana. It hasn't stopped her from asking, but now she just always answers her own question and we have a laugh. I then realized that the food offers didn't come only when she was deciding to eat something - I get the politeness of not wanting to eat in front of someone without offering - but that it would be any time she was engaging with food, often just seeing it in the kitchen. It was the timing of these questions that gave away that something more was going on. If she saw food, it didn't matter when, I would get an offer - it could be immediately upon returning home from a gut-busting meal, it could be while I was head-down focused and working, it could even be right after I was getting into bed at night. A generosity that knows no bounds, for sure. I have never said "no" so many times in my life, and with each one I have a tinge of guilt like it is rude to refuse when she is being so gracious.
It is even worse at the family dinners. I ultimately eat twice as much as everyone at the table because there are three people trying to put more food on my plate, yet none of them offer the food in the same way to each other. It is so ingrained in me to avoid over-eating that this has been quite a challenge. For the first meal, it was a like a special occasion welcoming me to Zagreb, so I obliged every offer. But eating like that almost every day? I can't. We also eat so early! We are technically eating lunch when we sit down to these big meals because that is traditionally the big meal of the day. So with modern work schedules, these lunches are pushed back as far as possible so that a whole work day can be had, but it means that we are eating at 4:00. I am then useless the rest of the night.
I came up with a metaphor for my experiences at these meals. For some reason wildlife photographers came up in conversation today and I asked my friend if she had seen the photos/heard the story about the leopard seal that kept trying to feed the photographer penguins. It's really an amazing encounter. I hate to anthropomorphize the seal, but she genuinely seemed interested in getting the photographer to eat a penguin. When one method would not work, she would try another. When live penguins kept swimming away, she kept trying other methods, ultimately shoving a dead penguin into the photographer's face. So at dinner, it would never matter how many times I refused food, efforts would continue, just like those of the leopard seal.
I was inspired to write this post because we just had a large birthday dinner for her dad. We had a traditional Dalmatian meal (from the coast, where her dad is from).. broiled mackerel with string beans. It was delicious. But I could not help but feel more culture difference as I looked at the whole fish and really had no idea what to do with it. Ultimately my friend's dad just de-boned it for me. I sat at the table like a 5-year-old waiting for someone to cut my meat for me. Below is a stock photo I found online because I did not want to interrupt dinner by pulling out my camera and being like "They're staring at me! I need a picture!"
I learned that mackerel must be eaten smothered with olive oil. It is a traditional Dalmation saying that the fish swim three times: once in the water, once in the olive oil, and once in the wine in your stomach. I was absolutely OK with this.
We finished dinner with a "cake" that is popular here. I've seen it in the bakeries and the layers can even be bought so as to not need to make it from scratch at home. These layers are actually meringue instead of cake, and then it is layered with berries or other fillings. So sweet. So delicious. I managed to take a picture of the cake.
This has really been an additional benefit to the writing retreat that I had not anticipated. I spend some time in the book discussing the complexities of food culture, so it is fun to be immersed in one that is in so many ways different from mine at home. It is really difficult to explain why people do what they do. I asked my friend why she thinks Croatian culture is so generous, and it was difficult to come up with anything other than "that's just how it is; that's how we are raised." She then gave me an extreme example of Dalmatian generosity. Apparently, when someone leaves their home in Dalmatia, there is a chance that someone could come to visit while they are not there. In order to make sure that their guest's trip would not be completely in vain, it is important to make sure that they could still could be fed and people leave soparnik, a traditional dish, on the windowsill before they leave, just in case!
We started to think about these traditions more.. why would it be custom to go out of your way to make sure your guests are well-fed? We realized that it likely has a deep history in relationship building with neighbors, representing the anthropological concept of reciprocity. Although no one here ever wants to ask for something, if these customs are in place and their networks are strong, they should never want for anything.
I have been "writing" a book for some time now. Once I got my job at Wayne State, my editor automatically extended the deadline in my contract by a year so that I could take the necessary time to get settled. This adjustment also allowed me to make negotiations to have teaching release in the upcoming fall term so that I can more fully focus on the book. The book is also my biggest summer project, so now the real writing is upon me. It is time to remind myself of all that I have learned about the process and the different mantras that I want to hold dear.
"You already wrote a dissertation. This is so much better than your dissertation."
"Forgive yourself for oversights and bad writing."
"Write like a motherf*cker."
Writing Routines/Writing Retreats
Culture and cultural history are so important. For instance take the case of crickets. Trying to promote crickets as food in the United States comes with all sorts of psychological barriers, mostly those that trigger disgust. However, if you think about trying to do the same in China, a country where insects are consumed regularly, especially in southern provinces, the cricket is a symbol of luck, and with that comes an entirely different set of mechanisms that would suggest they be avoided as food.
These different cultural conceptions of food are why I really want anthropologists to get more involved with entomophagy. I am currently working hard to put together a proposal to bring anthropologists with interest in insects as food from around the world together to engage is some deep theoretical debates about why people make the food choices they do. If I am able to get this workshop funded, then maybe these anthropologists will consider sharing their work at the Eating Innovation Conference in May of 2016.
I was interviewed for this piece that came out in Huffington Post today. I was very happy with the quotes the reporter chose because I feel it is the best reflection of the importance anthropology that I have seen in entomophagy media. My personal research is related to human evolution, so when I think about why we are not keen to eat insects in the US and Canada, I think about the fact that the majority of the continent was covered in ice when people first arrived here tens of thousands of years ago. This concept is reflected in the article, and it is the aspect about my work that tends to capture people's attention the most. However, I was excited when the reporter asked me about cultures around the world that have already accomplished what we are trying to accomplish here with the entomophagy movement.
As such, attempting to compare munching down on fried scorpions in Thailand to the same practice taking hold in the United States is like comparing apples to oranges, or, aphids to roseslugs. As Lesnik argues, there is no example of a people group who overwhelmingly stopped or drastically cut back on eating an affordable, readily available protein (such as beef) in favor of a more expensive, less available one (such as crickets).
“It doesn’t exist,” Lesnik noted. “What exists is people eating insects as a primary or major source of protein over an entire culture’s history. When you look at these populations, there’s no analogue to what we’re trying to do up here.”
As an anthropologist planning a conference, most the grants for which I can apply are in anthropology. However, these conference and workshop grants or designed to help anthropologists come together, despite an organization's emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration. So I am trying to put together a group of international anthropologists to come together for a workshop on insects as food. The plan is that it will be the day after the Eating Innovation conference so that we have lots of fodder for discussion. However, I am having a hard time finding anthropologists!
Many scholars write about the eating of insects by humans and even use the term "anthropo-entomophagy," most notably J. Ramos-Elorduy in the journal Entomological Research, and most recently E.M. Costa-Neto in the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed. However, there is a great difference between 'anthropo-entomophagy' and 'entomophagy anthropology' and I am searching for people out there who understand that difference.
So please, if you are an anthropologist (or a social scientist in general) outside of the US who studies insects as food (or studies food more broadly and is interested in investigating entomophagy), get into contact with me! I want to work with you to come up with money to bring you here to Detroit for the 2016 conference next May!
The cricket flour bake off is around the corner! April 7th will be here so soon! I am thrilled at the panel of judges that are coming together for this event. We seriously have superstars from Detroit's food community as well as WSU powerhouses joining us. I felt the best way to convey how starstruck they make me was to put together this poster:
So a little bit more about our judges:
Carbonell is the founder and owner of Café Con Leche coffee shop in the Southwest neighborhood of Detroit. Carbonell aims to bring together different cultures - be it Spanish coffee to Detroit or coffee shop culture to the Southwest - and Café Con Leche is doing an excellent job in achieving this goal. We are honored to have this multicultural perspective represented in our cricket flour bake-off. As anthropologists we know food has so much social and cultural significance, and it is great to have an entrepreneur join us who has been so successful who is actualizing this in his business.
Detroiters likely recognize Mancini by name, but if not, they are sure to recognize Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market. The small shop with thin crust pizzas inspired by Italy is a breath of fresh air in a city where chains for thick crust pizzas are born. The biggest buzz around Mancini right now is that he will be opening a full-menu Italian restaurant, La Rondinella. Maybe this summer? We all can't wait. Maybe he will consider a desert incorporating nectar-filled ingluvies like those eaten in traditional Northeast Italy. We are excited to hear what he has to say about the potential of insects as food.
McMillan is the award-winning author of the book The American Way of Eating, a contributing journalist to news sources such as NPR, Slate, and National Geographic to name a few, as well as an active blogger on her popular website traciemcmillan.com. Her list of awards and achievements are extensive and we in Michigan are proud to call her one of our own. McMillan works to address the inequalities of our food system and hunger in America. Her perspective is going to be invaluable at our event as we think about who can benefit from insects as food.
O'Meara is a freelance graphic designer turned specialty preserves entrepreneur with her business Beau Bien Fine Foods. O'Meara incorporates sweet and savory flavors from herbs, spices, peppers and flowers to create new combinations of flavors that please the palate. Additionally, she designs all of the company's beautiful packaging and promotional materials. This intersection of taste and presentation is definitely something we think a lot about in entomophagy, and we are lucky to have her input at our event.
Raskind is the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The. Dean. When I first started my job at Wayne State I raved about how supported and included I immediately felt, and Dean Raskind's participation in our event speaks volumes to this. With an event like this, it will be easy to get swept up in the fun and the tastings, but Raskind's presence will help us remember that we are here for a larger purpose; to explore the anthropology and apply what we do as academics to something even greater.
With Robbins-Ruszkowski as a judge, we officially have one third of the faculty of the Department of Anthropology actively participating of this event (in addition to myself, Todd Meyers, and Yuson Jung). I view Robbins-Ruszkowski as the glue of the judging panel. Her expertise in sociocultural anthropology and focus on individual experience within broader contexts of culture, history, politics, etc., lends itself to great discussions about American perceptions of insects as food.
Simmons, founder and owner of Five Star Cakes, comes to us from FoodLab Detroit, one of our community partners for this event. Foodlab helps individuals grow and experiment with their food start-ups so that they can cultivate a successful business rooted in the Detroit community. Five Star Cakes is an excellent example of the Detroit entrepreneurial spirit. Simmons not only knows her baked goods, but she knows what it takes to turn specialty products into a thriving business model. We are lucky to have her input as we try to create delectable baked goods using cricket flour.
Many thanks to all of our judges. We couldn't do this without you!
Back in December, I had the chance to participate in an online discussion about insects as food. It was an international collaboration of people interested in the subject posing questions and offering suggestions. There was much being said about marketing and business potential, which was super exciting! However, I created a thread where people could ask me questions related to my expertise in the evolution of the human diet. I also chimed in about issues in the developing world. I have culled my responses and put them below in a Q&A format.
What do you think we can learn from studying how our ancestors consumed diets?
First off, the majority of human evolution took place in tropical regions. Our lineage was in Africa for millions of years. We have only been up in Europe for 150,000 or so. Our dependence on meat and milk, something that we needed to do in order to survive in cold, glaciated areas, is a very recent development. Prior to this, animal protein was a supplement to a vegetarian based diet.
So, if you think of hunter-gatherers/foragers in the tropics, nothing is available in abundance for very long (spatial and temporal variability in resources). Yet, we have created a system where the rarest/riskiest resource - meat - is consumed multiple times a time, every day of the year. It should be no wonder that it is not sustainable!
Social insects such as termites and ants, were always a more reliable source of animal protein in the tropics. While men might preoccupy themselves with hunting, it is women who tend to gather these reliable insects, which makes sense, since women are the ones who need to make sure their nutritional requirements are met as they are often "eating for two." If women couldn't successfully have healthy babies, none of us would be here!
Anyways, I think a better understanding of the *real* paleo diet highlights the importance of insects. The "cave-man diet" trend is Euro-centric and an excuse to eat bacon! But I do think it shows that the public is interested in making informed decisions about food. Unfortunately the info they are given is often crap.
Do you study any regions in particular?
I work more in a time period (4 million to 10,000 years ago) than a region, although this period clearly takes place mostly in Africa. I use modern foraging populations around the world in order to create my models for what was going on back then.
What do you think has triggered the emergence of the Paleo diet and the kind of 'looking-back' to the way our ancestors used to eat that it encourages (albeit perhaps not in the most informed ways in most cases!)? Is it concerns with particular environmental issues, or maybe human health?
I believe interest in the "Paleo Diet" goes hand-in-hand with the current stigma on gluten. Many people diagnosed with Celiac's were sick for so long and no one could figure it out. Now people are getting the help they need. This legitimate allergy to gluten is due to not being able to digest our modern grain-based diets, so people interested in going gluten free started to look at what people were eating pre-agriculture. "Gluten free" then exploded in popularity as people began "detoxing" and documenting "sensitivities," (all B.S., by the way - most documented sensitivities are not to the gluten protein but to chemicals in the growing or processing of the product).
Do you think promoting insects as part of a Paleo Diet is a good idea? A concern could be that instead of fully embracing the way our ancestors actually ate meat like you describe (i.e. sporadically), consumers will continue to consume the same amount of meat, whether that be completely from insects or a mixture of insects and traditional livestock?
I honestly do not know how I feel about promoting insects as part of the Paleo Diet. On one hand, I HATE the Paleo Diet.. I critique that it is Euro-centric and that it is Atkins reimagined, using false testimony from my scientific field in order to market it. However, I believe educated individuals can make more informed choices, and I want people to have a better understanding of human evolution, so if insects can be marketed as part of the "real" paleo diet, then maybe I shouldn't be so reluctant. The problem is that the "real" paleo diet did not include a lot of animal protein, so that does not help promote insects as much as it should help people to reduce their reliance on meat.
What type of edible insect products are likely to be most suitable for the 'developing world' and which ones are less likely to take off in poor countries?' Please share your experiences and thoughts for the future.
I really think the potential for insects in developing countries lies in small household farms. The issue of food security is so much less about there not being enough food and more about people being too poor to get it. I think small insect farms could be an amazing way people can provide protein to their families. I think what needs to be demonstrated, though, is how these live insects can be turned into delicious "foods;" foods that are recognized in one's own culture, so this is going to be different everywhere you go. I am working my hardest to get more anthropologists thinking about the subject because it is people who study these cultures that can provide the insight necessary. As projects start targeting communities, if I am asked, I can try to find anthropologists working in the region who might be able/willing to help. I truly believe they hold the key to the success of this movement in these areas.
I know you know, but now there are official dates and now it is taking over my life, so I feel like there should be a blog here dedicated to it!
On May 26-28, 2016, a little more than a year from now, I will be hosting the Eating Innovation Detroit conference dedicated to exploring the culture of insects as food and feed. Daily programming will occur on Wayne State University’s campus, and nightly events will happen across the city.
What have I accomplished so far?
There is much still to do, like reserving a block of rooms at a hotel and figuring out shuttles and other transportation options, but it's coming along. I will keep everyone updated here on the blog about how it's all going!
Julie Lesnik received her PhD studying the role of termites in the diet of fossil hominins and has since started exploring insects as food more broadly.