A Culinary Comfort Zone – Are You Going To Eat That? (FAK Friday)

Creepy Crawly Cuisine, The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects

What is “normal”, anyway?

When it comes to food, normal could be loosely defined as what you grew up with. Here in America, we might think of processed cheese slices, hot dogs, or twinkies as “normal”. In other parts of the world, a plate full of grubs might be considered comfort food, fish eyes might be a pantry staple, or snake stew could be the local delicacy. I remember Andrew Zimmern (from the show “Bizarre Foods“) talking to an African tribesman who insisted that American’s were crazy to let perfectly good milk go to spoil, then dry it into little squares and eat it. To this man, cheese was the most bizarre food he could think of.

What makes a food seem strange, more often than not, is cultural upbringing. If you grew up eating worms instead of chicken nuggets, surely you wouldn’t think anything of it. (And yet, when you really think about it, is a chicken nugget all that appealing?) But it does raise the question, where do our limits lie? If offered a taste of something strange or exotic, would you take the chance?

With the advent of modern food preservation and refrigeration, we’ve been given the opportunity to experience a kind of variety otherwise unattainable. We can process, store, and ship foods from all around the world, and have access to new and unusual things our ancestors wouldn’t even recognize. In the past several decades alone, the American pallet has broadened its horizons considerably. It seems there’s a new “superfood” hitting the shelves every minute. We’re stocking our carts with items our grandparents wouldn’t know the names of, and many of us pride ourselves on being adventurous eaters, willing to try anything at least once. It’s all well and good to think that we live in a culturally and culinary diverse part of the world, with a vast array of cuisines to choose from (Thai for lunch? What about Indian, or Korean, or Cantonese?), but the question still remains – what is our comfort zone?

I remember being five or six years old when a friend of mine told me he had heard they were making lollipops with crickets in them. I’m fairly certain a called him a liar, right up until I saw it for myself in the newspaper. A regular sucker, with a cricket clearly visible inside, suspended in the hardened sugar like a bug trapped in amber. How many licks does it take to get to the insect center of a cricket pop? I didn’t want to know.

Cricket Lick-It    [source]

Who would ever want to eat that? I thought. (This, coming from a kid who wasn’t afraid to stick most anything in her mouth.) The answer, I now know, is that the cricket isn’t any more odd than the lollipop – depending who you ask – and that the strangest thing is merely the combination of the two.

The eating of insects (called, “entomophagy“) is common in many parts of the world, and includes everything from beetles, to moths, and even arachnids (though not technically an insect). Today, in the more developed parts of the world, and Western culture specifically, eating bugs is looked on with an air of disgust. Despite being a readily available and widely consumed source of protein and nutrients, insects have some how fallen off the menu. And who could blame us? They aren’t called creepy crawlies for nothing!

Of course, we aren’t able to avoid these things entirely, no matter how hard we try. Wherever food is grown, there are bugs and pests of all types (despite the wealth of chemicals we spray on them), and when those foods are harvested, cleaned, and processed, there are unavoidable traces of little legs and wings and larvae that still find their way onto our plates. In fact, the FDA has produced a detailed list of how much insect, rodent, and other “filth” is allowed to be present in any given food product – did you know the average peanut butter and jelly sandwich could contain as many as 54 insect bits? The FDA calls these “Food Defect Levels”. It doesn’t take much imagination to be completely repulsed by this idea, but many entomologists and nutritionists agree that these traces are not harmful, and some even tout their dietary healthfulness.

“They’re actually pretty healthy,” says Dr. Philip Nixon, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, in regard to insects, “If we were more willing to accept certain defect levels such as insects and insect parts, growers could reduce pesticide usage. Some of the spraying that goes on is directly related to the aesthetics of our food.” – source

The question in my mind is, where did this aversion come from? When did we go from picking (and eating) grubs out of each other’s hair to being afraid of what traces of nature might be hiding within our food? For that matter, when did we begin thinking that twinkies (or chicken nuggets, or cheeze wiz) are better for us than insects? Shouldn’t engineered food products raise more eyebrows than organically occurring sources of nutrients?

To be perfectly honest with you, that cricket lollipop story stuck with me for a long time. There was a rule in my household that we (my brother and I) couldn’t say we didn’t like something without trying it. I was an adventurous little kid (as my poor mother will surely attest), and I couldn’t help but wonder about all the strange things I had yet to experience.

Now, in my twenties, that same sense of readiness to explore has only grown stronger. I’ve always been an adventurous eater, eager to try anything… so when a bug-savvy biologist friend of mine offered to cook up a batch of “Crickets a la Papouasie” (a dish of crickets sauteed in butter and garlic), how could I refuse the opportunity?

The recipe my friend proposed stated that the crickets had a delicate flavor similar to shrimp, and a delightfully crunchy texture. I’d heard insects compared to seafood more than once, so I pushed aside my skepticism and tried to approach the subject with an open mind.

For the record, these crickets were very small, and less offensive than your average bug. If you could look past the legs and antennae you would find the same fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that make up any other food source. Indeed, they are one of the most ancient and primal forms of nutrients to be found. Paleo? Certainly. Vegan? No, but surely they are worlds better than today’s commercial farmed meats. Locally grown, organically raised, antibiotic and hormone free… how bad could they be?

If you really must know, they weren’t bad at all. They were crispy, as the recipe claimed. They tasted like the butter and garlic they were cooked in, and were incredibly easy to eat after the initial hesitation.

I realize some of you have stopped reading by now. Some of you are reading on out of some masochistic inability to look away… but some of you are also intrigued.

So, to those of you who have stuck around this far, my question to you is this – what is your food comfort zone? Are you an adventurous eater, and if so, what is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? What would you absolutely refuse to eat, if offered a bite?

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16 Responses to A Culinary Comfort Zone – Are You Going To Eat That? (FAK Friday)

  1. Anonymous April 12, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    My comfort zone is definitely in the staple home cooked meals. I think I even lean a bit to Spanish style foods, probably because it’s one of my favorites to cook and explore in the kitchen. Not to mention the avocado mixes so well with it all.

    I would say I’m sadly not too adventurous. If I try a food and dislike it I will try it again later and see if I still don’t like it, I’m not a fan of trying it once and throwing it on the ban list. Sushi, raw tomatoes, cheese, nuts, and avocado are a few examples of things I hated for years. I kept trying them instead of refusing and one by one have added them to my list of awesomeness. Still can’t acquire the taste of olives though :-/.

    I’m 90% texture. It can make or break it for me, mostly break. Everyone loves a pineapple right? I couldn’t get over for the longest time how the crunchiness made my brain think I was eating a sweet cockroach. So to answer your question, I think I’d be very reluctant to try things with the texture of sweet plantains, bonus refusal points for seafood slimies.

    • Willow April 15, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

      I agree about trying things more than once – there are things I hated as a kid but love now! I think our tastes grow and change as we get older, too, so I’m sure that has something to do with it.

  2. Anonymous April 12, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    No to tripe… no to brains… no to rocky mountain oysters!

    • Willow April 15, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      Haha, rocky mountain oysters sound tame compared to the other two on your list. ;)

  3. leaf (the indolent cook) April 13, 2013 at 5:40 am #

    You’re a brave woman. I’m a pretty adventurous eater, but I’d be hesitant to eat bugs… maybe if it was under the recommendation of someone trustworthy, like in your case with your biologist friend, that could be alright!

    • Willow April 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

      Knowing the right people is definitely helpful! :)

  4. Anonymous April 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    Recipe? and sources for purchasing crickets to eat, please!

    • Willow April 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

      I believe the crickets were purchased from a pet shop (the sort you might buy to feed reptiles). There are different varieties of cricket out there, and I’m not certain what these were. That book in the photo at the top has some information on how to acquire and prepare them, and notes that it’s best if the crickets have fasted for several hours or a day in advance. We followed a recipe from the book very loosely – basically saute garlic in butter until golden, add crickets and cook until crispy. Not much more too it than that!

  5. TheDad April 17, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Anything in garlic and butter is good; even mushrooms! ; ) Seriously, though, there are good reasons to avoid some things like brains, for instance (CJD risk), and fugu (poisonous).

    Really old dietary laws were often quite reasonable in terms of disease risks (pork and trichinosis, for instance). But you’re right. Things have changed. Pork is safe, now; brains, which used to be safe, are not.

    Interesting post. Thanks!

    • Willow April 17, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      “Even mushrooms”?! You mean, especially mushrooms! ;)

      Glad you liked the post – and you’re right, there are some things well worth avoiding, especially depending on what part of the world you’re in. Even Andrew Zimmern admits to foods he cannot/will not eat because of health concerns. Always better to play it safe, in those instances!

  6. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes April 17, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Ha! I thought I was pretty adventurous until I read this post :) You are amazing Willow, you never cease to amaze me – crickets for Dinner, for you yes…for me, I think I will pass :)

    • Willow April 26, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

      Heheh, yeah, crickets are pretty out-there. To be honest with you, though, I’d do it again. What can I say, they were really good! :P

  7. shannon weber April 19, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    i guess i’m not sure if i’m an adventurous eater, but i do make it a point to try things i’ve never had before, if the opportunity presents itself. Mostly, i don’t believe in ever saying “ew, that’s gross, i don’t like that” if i have never had something, because how would i know? What if i’m missing out on my new favorite thing? That being said, i’m sure i have a limit to what i will try; i just don’t know what it is. i would try crickets. i bet you i would be much more apt to try crispy things versus gooey or mushy things, i guess? hard to say.

    • Willow April 26, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

      I think I agree with that – crispy over gooey and mushy, for sure. It’s amazing how much texture has to do with liking something. Potato chips (even baked) are much more appealing, texturally, than a baked potato.

  8. Anonymous April 26, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    Oooh, I had a big plateful of jumbo-sized crickets (stir-fried in garlic and just a bit of oil) when I was in Mexico. So good! It really is a shame that we Americans are so weird about eating bugs; I think they’d be a great thing to eat sometimes.

    • Willow April 26, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

      I agree – I’m all for some diversity in our diets!

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