If you were to visit China in the 21st century, you may well stumble across one of the popular speed cooking competitions, where frenetically paced chefs transform live animals into animated culinary oddities: snakes are decapitated then chopped up into inch-long segments, which squirm on the plate several feet away from their freshly-severed heads; Ying Yang fish, their sides deep-fried and coated in sweet and sour sauce are devoured as they stare up, still breathing (if the fish isn’t breathing, naturally the chef is disqualified).
For those of us who are a little squeamish about eating their dinner while it’s still alive, the popular dish Drunken Shrimp might be more palatable. The shrimp are served stunned in baijiu, a distilled white liquor, perhaps to impart a final pleasure to the creature before its untimely demise (although diners run the risk of becoming one of the 22 million people worldwide subjected to the food-borne parasitic infection Paragonimiasis – a fair compromise, from the perspective of the shrimp).
Eating animals before they’re dead is something of a rare – and some might say cruel and sadistic – delicacy. Some Japanese seafood connoisseurs share their Chinese neighbours’ predilection for live animals, eating their fish, lobster or octopus ikizukuri-style, a preparation of sashimi using live seafood, or intoxicating baby shrimps in rice wine to make odori ebi. Koreans might prefer sannakji – raw, live and freshly chopped octopus which literally tries to escape as hungry locals and adventurous tourists attempt to cram the wriggling creatures into their mouths.
In the Western world such practices are often condemned as inhumane or even outlawed altogether, as is the case with ikizukuri in Australia and Germany. Most of us prefer our food to be dead before it reaches the plate, rather than staring at us with a mixture of desperation and horror as we tuck greedily into its flank. It is perhaps ironic, given the techniques used in the West for the mass production of animal food – from factory farms to industrialised slaughterhouses, where animals suffer torturous conditions before being killed en masse – that much of the opprobrium levelled against the approach to fresh meals in East Asia comes from those who live in regions of the world where animals have been reduced to mere commodities controlled by multinational corporations.
Ethical concerns bogged down in the quagmire of cultural relativism aside, few are likely to have any sympathy for the hapless victims squirming in the dish Casu Marzu, a pungent cheese made of sheep’s milk left out in the sun to become infested with maggots, a favourite on the Italian island of Sardinia. As a species it seems we have some way to go before extending our compassion towards insect larvae. A “Prehispanic Snackeria” in San Francisco called Don Bugito specialises in providing customers all their protein and vitamin needs in insect form – this enterprising advocate of “entomophagy” – the human consumption of insects – includes on its menu such delights as Wax Moth Larvae Tacos (“crunchy and tasty!” according to one satisfied customer), Salted Cricket Tostadita and Toffee Covered Mealworms over Vanilla Ice Cream.
Eating insects might be a something of a novelty – or perhaps a challenge – even for the residents of San Francisco, a city more deserving than most of the label “cosmopolitan”, where writer H. L. Menken felt the “subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States.” Perhaps only New Yorkers can challenge San Franciscans in the arena of quirky cuisine – the East Coast plays host to a number of unusual restaurants which give Don Bugito a run for its money, where the clientèle can be found tucking into guinea pigs, finely chopped goat testicles and frog porridge. Such dishes, however, are not indigenous to the Big Apple; rather, they reflect the eccentric tastes of a city where obscure ethnic specialities sit comfortably alongside dining blindfolded to “challenge your palate to tease out the mysteries”.
The eclectic restaurants of New York represent a tasting menu of the unusual foods to be found around the world. Well over a thousand insect species have been recorded as being eaten by over 3000 ethnic groups. Over 300 species of ants are eaten globally, from Thailand to Australia, sometimes grown on a special farm and encased in lollipops, sometimes covered in chocolate, providing children with a delicious, nutritional snack. Bug-themed special eating parties in Tokyo offer cockroach sushi, while the peckish shopper perusing the street stalls of Donghuamen Night Market in Beijing can choose from a selection of silkworm cocoons, fried scorpions, centipedes and locusts to stave off hunger. For something more substantial the Cambodians offer tarantula, stir frying the arthropod in mashed garlic, salt and oil.
It is unlikely that the widespread practice of entomophagy is just around the corner (in the western world, if not Asia), but the advantages to consuming the occasional grub or beetle may be greater – both to the individual and the environment – than most would assume. As well as being high in protein, insects could provide the ever-swelling human population of the planet with a possible alternative source to animal livestock. Environmentalists argue that this would reduce the need for huge tracts of land used for cattle grazing presently requiring extensive deforestation and the corresponding reduction in biodiversity, while simultaneously drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The only obstacle to such a radical revision of the human diet, some environmentalists lament, is the cultural taboo against eating insects which exists in Western culture.
While efforts by the Food and Agriculture Organization to promote entomophagy have so far largely focused on the Asia and Pacific region (and, if the foregoing overview is anything to go by, they have so far been hugely successful), cricket sticks and scorpion sandwiches are not likely to appear on the shelves of supermarkets in Europe and the US any time soon.
Or at least, not labelled. Many food laws limit the quantity of insect parts found in food rather than prohibiting them altogether. For instance, according to the US Food and Drug Administration’s “The Food Defect Action Levels” booklet, contamination of less than 150 insect fragments per 100 grams of wheat flour poses no threat. Whether you’re curious or not about trying out insects with your next meal, the chances are you already have.
In the modern world, we throw away almost as much food as we eat. A study conducted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2013 revealed that as much as half of all the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year – an amount equivalent to 2 billion tonnes. The report cites a number of factors which leads to this “staggering” statistic, from “poor engineering and agricultural practices” to unnecessarily strict sell-by dates and the demand from Western consumers for cosmetically perfect food. While the supermarkets rejected the findings – and with it, any culpability they may share – campaigners maintained that poorly managed food consumption habits were exacerbated by retailers. Tom Tanner, from the Sustainable Restaurants Association, said: “It is the power of major retailers – convenience shopping and supermarkets on everyone’s doorstep, you can nip out and buy a ready made meal in two minutes rather than make use of what’s in your fridge.”
One extreme form of anti-consumerist ideology striving to break away from the conventional economic and commercial system which exacerbates waste is Freeganism, which encourages minimal consumption of resources. Freegans “embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed,” their activism characterised by the salvaging of discarded food from the skips and bins of supermarkets and restaurants. The perfectly edible food – thrown away because of the strict sell-by dates cited by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as one of the major causes of wastage – is often shared with the homeless and hungry, combining environmental activism and sustainability with humanitarianism. The problems created by rampant consumerism and free market capitalism are best solved, or at the very least addressed, by radical “community anarchists”.
The existence of Freeganism and other associated movements geared towards sustainable living, wild foraging and community gardens call to attention the complex and often ill-considered nature of contemporary food production and consumption. At one extreme, the unequal distribution of food has created a continuing increase in the world’s poor, with an estimated 925 million people in 2010 going hungry, the vast majority of whom live in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum, the rich and powerful may well start the day with a Zillion Dollar Frittata for $1000 before treating themselves to an Italian White Alba Truffle (price: $160,406). Foie gras – cooked duck or goose liver produced by force-feeding the animals until their livers enlarge to around 600% of their natural size – is just one dish eaten by the wealthy which has been condemned as cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. Endangered species are often sought after too – from Chinese giant salamanders and giant ditch frogs to dolphins and elephants; the rarer the delicacy the more highly sought after it is.
The eating habits of billionaires seem to reflect something of the decadent spirit of the age, voracious appetites to match their avaricious leanings, living in a world where the top 100 billionaires have the capacity to end global poverty.
From the waste pickers and scavengers who climb the mountains of refuse of Sao Paulo in Brazil to the increasing number gastro-tourism enthusiasts globe-trotting in search of the next exotic dish, it seems humans will eat just about anything. If the idea of eating bugs might sound like an unpleasant throwback to the primitive past, there are some who choose to diet on the menu of our distant ancestors.
The Paleolithic diet – also known as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet and hunter-gatherer diet – first became popular in the 1970s by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin, author of the self-published The Stone Age Diet: Based on in-depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man, who proposed a nutritional program based on meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Controversial amongst dieticians and anthropologists, the diet was deemed to rank the lowest of 20 diets by US News and World Report. The panel of 22 experts took issue with the diet on every measure, including health, weight-loss and effects on the heart, determining that, while a “true Paleo diet might be a great option: very lean, pure meats, lots of wild plants. The modern approximations… are far from it.”
The idea that eating the food of ancestors so ancient they lived in a period of human history when more than one human species existed is considered a “fad diet” is not unreasonable – why deliberately deny yourself from sharing in the advantages of the Neolithic Revolution? Eleven thousand years of agriculture has played a pivotal role in the development of the human race; eschewing a grain-based diet in favour of that of the hunter-gatherer seems to represent a counter-intuitive regression from human achievement (although it is debatable whether or not the era of patriarchy-driven “civilization” has been truly beneficial to either the species or the planet – the verdict is still out), notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that the Paleolithic Era spanned some 3 million years – around 99% of human existence – of which there is much uncertainty and scholarly dispute. Anthropologists and archaeologists offer a number of competing hypothesis on the content and balance of the diet of the Paleolithic human, with some even arguing that cannibalism was common in human societies.
Of course, none of the contemporary advocates of a Paleolithic diet have suggested incorporating human flesh – at least, not in any of the literature in the public domain.