Friday, 25 March 2011

On frying locusts

I recently bought some live locusts from Amazon: £6.50 for ten. One died in transit. I fried six of them ate two and gave four to some teenagers to try (I was giving a talk on food and faith at their school). Just for the shock value? Well not entirely but foods is a shocking issue as my recent ‘attack’ on food banks demonstrates. People think they have food sorted. Either they take it for granted or when it becomes problematic (as now when food prices are rising and food production contributes increasingly to global warming) they reach for the easy answer.

Why do we not eat insects? They are highly efficient converters of plant protein into animal protein and we all know animal protein is more nutritious than plant protein (don’t we?). Locusts are more efficient – and just as nutritious – as other herbivorous we do eat: such as chickens or cows. And of course very much more efficient though perhaps less nutritious than carnivorous animals we tend not to eat like dogs and sea gulls. We eat closely related animals such as prawns. Australians who have had a lot of locusts recently have begun to call them ‘sky prawns’. Insects are commonly eaten by some people (as I have personally observed in Africa) but also elsewhere in the world as well: particularly the Far East.

The locusts I fried and then tried were tasty: a bit like pop-corn really. Not as flavoursome as prawns but with distinct similarities. Unusual perhaps but we are always eating unusual foods. When I was young no-one had heard of sushi, and olive oil was drunk by the spoonful as a medicine.

How did I kill my locusts? I eschewed dropping them in boiling oil, but put them in the freezer before frying them. Was this more humane? Was a slow death from hypothermia preferable to a quick death from being plunged into boiling oil? (I was rather worried about them jumping out of the pan if tried the latter). All sorts of animal rights issue arose here. As they do when we raise our own animals to eat but can easily forget about when buying meat in polystyrene trays from supermarkets. I ate (and shared) my locusts just ever so slightly reluctantly because I’d been looking after them a few days.

Why locusts and not beetles or even their relatives: cockroaches? Well largely because locusts are expressly allowed under Jewish food laws. This seems odd to me. Why of all insects did God allow the Jews to eat locusts? He forbade them to eat crustaceans like prawns. Perhaps because they clearly only eat the grass of the field which all animals were designed to eat (Genesis 1: 30). Perhaps too this was a concession based on his justice. If locusts eat all your crops then it is surely permissible to eat them in turn. Whereas beetles they eat other insects and cockroaches: goodness knows what they eat.

Should we then actively go looking for locusts to eat? Perhaps even farm them like we farm other animals? Well there is a bit of a suggestion that eating insects like locusts would help stave off global warming. This is because of their efficiency in converting plant protein to animal protein which means that they are intrinsically less prone to contributing towards the production of green house gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Might they also be a cheap source of protein which could help people who are poor? Protein is one of the most expensive nutrients: along with some essential fatty acids, some vitamins and some minerals. Much more expensive than sugar and fat. So yes. And indeed it's poor people who already eat them. Incidentally I looked up a recipe for locusts in Heston Blumenthal’s fantastically expensive and lavish cook book: The Fat Duck Cookbook and while there are recipes for things (I hesitate to call them foods) which include frankincense, violets, tobacco, caviar (fish eggs), foie-gras (the liver of a goose that has been inflated by forced feeding) there was not a single recipe for locusts.

So why do we not eat locusts? And even find the idea abhorrent. This is because we are –despite people like Heston Blumenthal’s best efforts inherently cautious when it comes to foods. We think we know in our guts what it is right to eat and what is wrong. But do we really? If we could lose some of our hang ups about foodwe might find it easier to change the way we eat. We need to do this if we are to avoid global melt down. The only way to prevent global heating is if we in the developed world eat less meat and dairy products. I am not suggesting we should all become vegetarians though that is what we were designed to be (Genesis 1.29). We are permitted to eat meat (Genesis 9: 3) but we should do so rarely, on special occasions and with reverence. This is going to be very difficult. When people get more money in their pockets they spend it – on meat. And meat eating becomes a habit which then becomes difficult to break. We don’t really need to eat locusts but we do need to eat more vegetables: almost as difficult as locusts for many! But if we can’t begin to contemplate the unthinkable with regard to what we eat: well we – or at least our children - are doomed.

I increasingly feel like the man who used to wear a sandwich board round his neck and would walk up and down Oxford Street in London. On one side of his sandwich board read, ‘Eat less meat’. It migh as well as have said, ‘Eat more locusts’ for all the notice people took. On the other side of his sandwich board were the words: ‘The end of the world is nigh’.


  1. So what is the deal with Deut 14:19 - locusts swarm don't they?

  2. I've consulted Kass (my guru on the subject). He is not exactly clear but here in summary....

    It's clear that it's because locusts leap that they and related insects are OK to eat (Leviticus 11: 21-22). It's not swarming alone that makes insects not OK. In fact swarming in water (as fish of course do) is good. See Genesis 1.21.

    Swarming sounds bad but teaming I think would be a better translation (he says knowing no Hebrew whatsoever). And I think it's only swarming/teaming on land that is not good (Leviticus 11:41). (In the air it's OK I think.)

    Creeping is also bad (Leviticus 11:41). So creatures with no legs (like worms, remember this is pre-Lineaus, and of course snakes) or too many legs (like centipedes or caterpillars) can't be eaten.

    It's clear that locoomotion (and where you locomote) is important in determining whether you can be eaten. So for example 0 legs is only OK if you have fins and live in water; 2 legs and wings is OK and you live in the air (birds with provisos); 4 is OK if you live on land (mammmals with provisos, (but not reptiles?).

    Locusts who live in the air because they have wings seem to get away with having more than 2 legs because they (of the creatures of the air) like birds can leap from the ground into the air.