I remember the termites in the frying pan. I was standing on a chair and watching an old man (my grandfather?) cook the insects. I was boy-excited by the sweet smell of fat that rose from the pan and filled the kitchen. I can also recall the rain beating on the kitchen window. The rainy season began that day. There was some grumbling in the clouds that approached the southern African city of Kwekwe (then called Que Que) in the afternoon. You smelled the rain before it started falling, and when it fell, it was loud and heavy and warm.
Right after the November sun set on the small city, a bunch of food appeared in the night air. It was a frenzy of male and female termites with transparent wings that flickered under the electric lights around the house and on the street. The termites were looking for mates. During their search, some were caught in nets and were now being cooked in the kitchen. Others were picked and eaten from the folds of shirts or dresses they had dumbly flown into. Others were killed by the windshields of cars, which collected their whitish gore in the rising and falling windshield wipers.
A few months after watching and eating those delicious and certainly nutritious termites (100 grams of termites contains 36.7 grams of protein, 34.3 grams of fat, and 23.2 grams of carbohydrates, according to the Nigerian scientists O. T. Adepoju and O. A. Omotayo), I moved to the United States. I was 5 years old. I went to my first McDonald's. I stopped talking Shona and rapidly learned English. None of the white and black American kids in my Nashville kindergarten class knew I ate insects. The very idea would have made them barf.
This country doesn't eat even one kind of insect, although I believe the future of the human race is going to depend on eating bugs. As the human population increases, and as the climate changes, and as these changes place new pressures on our vital resources, we will have no choice but to adapt our diets to the new ecological and demographic conditions.
The planet's current population is 7.6 billion. It's expected that over 35 years, it will rise to about 9 billion. More humans means more of the standard and mass-produced foods we eat in the West (cows, pigs, turkeys) consuming more of the environment's diminishing resources. These animals demand lots of water and vegetable matter for their production and reproduction. They are also major contributors to the greenhouse gases that are driving our planet crazy.
According to the book Edible Insects, 1,900 insects are known to be edible. Nearly a third of humanity eat insects on the regular, and some of these insects, such as the termites of my childhood, offer more protein than beef by the pound, but without the hard impact on the environment. The future will need to be more efficient, less capitalistic (a system that's super-wasteful, as the new documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which features rock-star chef Anthony Bourdain, makes very clear), and present protein and fat sources that are cheap and plentiful. Americans will have to learn to eat insects.
Many of the kids in my kindergarten class, kids who would have barfed at the very idea of chewing termites, will be alive when our population hits 9 billion and meat becomes what it should have always been—a delicacy rather than the center of our diets. Insects are destined to be on the Thanksgiving table in 2050.
Not long ago, I traveled to Shoreline to visit David George Gordon, a world-renowned bug chef, to experience what we'll be eating at Thanksgiving in 40 years. Gordon is in his 60s, has a thick white beard, wears professor-ish glasses, and was holding a white bucket filled with dried insects.
"Those are hormigas culonas, a leaf-cutter ant from Colombia," he explains as I press their black, dried abdomens into the avocado spread on a slice of bread. It's the end of a late October day, and we are in a space Gordon shares with Karen Luke Fildes (his partner and a painter of Northwest colors and atmospheres) and Juliana Brandon (a puppet theater designer).
It's on the top floor of a two-story brick building. The north-facing window of the bug chef's shared space has a view of a huge Fred Meyer parking lot and a Jack in the Box. Dusky light from the window falls on a short-legged table that's between me and Gordon, and arranged on this table are packets of mopane worms, which I have eaten before—in Botswana, where they are popular and taste like dusty pork rinds.
There are also packets of frighteningly huge wasps from Japan (I refuse to eat these—in my mind, eating a wasp is like eating a lion) and packets of Manchurian scorpions (I also refuse to eat those). But I'm happy to eat the crickets (not so good), caterpillars (almost good), and grasshoppers (excellent and even a little addictive).
As for the Colombian ants, which are "wild-harvested winged females that were fried and salted," I am eating four or so each bite. They are crunchy and uninteresting for a moment. Then something explodes in my mouth. It's a sensation I have never known, and it feels as much outside as inside my body. It's also possible that the external part of this feeling is a consequence of the flavor being so foreign to me.
A moment later, the sensation sharpens like an extraterrestrial orgasm. I imagine this to be the final satisfaction of some many-eyed creature climaxing on some planet in some other solar system. Even the cooling of the sensation does not bring me back to the body of an earthling. It instead brings to my mind that moment in Andrei Sinyavsky's short story "Pkhentz" when, after a long day at work, the alien alone in its apartment takes a bath and unfolds its body, which it has to horribly wrap up into the form of a man to hide its true identity from humans. The way the many-membered ET relaxes in the bathtub is the feeling in my mouth.
I eat more Colombian ants and some mopane worms. And as I chew the insects, I look at Gordon, who is looking for other bugs in his bucket. Next to him is a bookshelf that's filled with books on human entomophagy (the practice of eating insects). One book is authored by Gordon himself: The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 40 Ways to Cook Crickets, Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin. (It's also available on Kindle for $4.99.) Another book is about American cockroaches.
To the right of the bookshelf is a painting of a naked woman. She is looking directly at me as she holds a scale with her right hand and prepares to turn the page of an open book on her lap with her left hand. A sparkling necklace rests between her breasts. It's impossible for this funky artists' space not to remind me of the old and cheaper Seattle.
Gordon explains that the disgust people feel toward bugs is all in the mind. He points out that in the past, lobsters were considered food for the poorest of the poor. The lobster was called, significantly, the "cockroach of the sea." If you had lobster shells on the floor of your home, it was a sign to visitors that you were really going through some hard times. Lobsters were fed to prisoners. And the negative national feelings about this 10-legged crustacean were still alive during World War II, when it was fed to US soldiers, who ate it out of a sense of duty. Now lobsters are food for the rich. And this transformation (from cockroach to ambrosia) happened in a very short amount of time.
As he places Thai-spiced grasshoppers on a plate, Gordon explains why a Thanksgiving dinner with bugs would be more efficient and realistic than one with a huge-ass turkey.
"Look, instead of turkey, we should make cricket fritters or grasshopper kabobs. Either dish would be waaaaay more environmentally friendly."
Citing a figure from an article he found on the internet called "Water Impact of Thanksgiving Dinner and How to Dial Back," Gordon says that turkeys require 468 gallons of water per pound to raise. That's 9,360 gallons per 20-pound turkey. Conversely, "it takes about one gallon of water to produce a pound of crickets," Gordon says.
"Also, nutritionally speaking, bugs are the real winners. They say that pound-for-pound, dried grasshoppers (or crickets) contain as much protein as lean ground beef. Also plenty of vitamins and (surprise!) omega-3 fatty acids ordinarily found in salmon and other oily oceanic fish."
So what would Gordon prepare if he were making Thanksgiving dinner? "A green salad with black ants," he says, and also "my 'now-famous' cranberry-cockroach relish."
The relish recipe calls for two cups of whole raw cranberries, washed, and 12 to 16 freshly baked American cockroaches. With a food processor, coarsely grind the cranberries and a small onion together. Add two tablespoons of horseradish, three-quarters cup sour cream, and half a cup sugar in a medium-size bowl, "mixing until uniform." Then: "Combine with baked cockroaches. Put it in a plastic container and freeze. On Thanksgiving morning, transfer mixture from freezer to refrigerator compartment to thaw. Serve after six hours."
As we are talking, Gordon concludes, "Of course, not everything on the table would have to have bugs in it. But remember that most of our vegetables and fruits got their start being pollinated by insects."