Mǣl by Amy Wright
Mǣl from the Old English for measure, fixed time.
A cubed Hanover Better Boy drizzles its citrus broth into a pudding of avocado. Bell peppers wait in the chopper to be added to a dish of jalapeño pentacles. Crunchy flakes of salt, a shock of lime wedges, purple onions are laid out in mango-colored bowls to provide bite to the accruing party-size vat of guacamole. The chip option, white corn. A pan on the counter cools the final topper—two pounds of mealys, their golden bodies fried crisp, the size of American Girl Doll fingers.
Current food production will need to almost double to meet the anticipated demand to sustain the population of nine or ten billion expected by 2050. i
The chef, Daniella Martin, founder of GirlMeetsBug.com, says the strength of Americans’ resistance to entomophagy, or the human consumption of insects, can be used to change their minds. “To have an aversion so deep it’s become visceral,” she says, “really gets people to pay attention to your message with their whole bodies.” ii
Martin and I, along with a crowd of reporters, foodies, area professors, scientists, and entomologists are in The Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C. A staff member confirmed my name on the press list and welcomed me with a gift, a white box I later open to find a computer mouse partially filled with blue liquid in which floats a cheese wedge, a cow the same size as the miniature hen, tomato, and carrot. Its label, Holland Food Partner. A sunshine-orange banner on the wall of the conference room explains: “Holland is second only to the United States in agricultural export.”
On a neighboring banner, photographs of handsome families flash hominy-white smiles above a collage of green beans, fronds of spinach, ears of corn gleaming like my dairy-farming cousin Al’s blonde locks on posters for our high school agriculture organization. Though insects are available for purchase in grocery stores in The Netherlands, they are not yet arrayed with this bounty.
The nutrition crisis is not yet visible in all parts of the world, but what is apparent is the spreading popularity of western dietary habits. The 44 lbs of animal protein averaged annually in developing nations is growing to equal the European 166 lbs and American 265 lbs. The population increase marks an unsustainable consumption of our planet’s resources if more efficient converters of protein do not augment the dominant livestock markets of pig and cattle. iii
Yellow mealworms, or Tenebrio molitor, are not worms at all but the larval phase of darkling beetles. Nor do they feel much like worms, since unlike the larvae of wax-moths which have the texture of custard with a day-old skin, mealworms are slick as dried beans.
n. the time for eating, meal-time, a meal. e.g.
He gereordade æt anum mæle fif þusend manna
: at one meal he fed five thousand men.
I am here for the cicada bruschetta. I have seen these sky prawns clinging to magnolia trunks, their metamorphosed bodies in flight, and the possibility of biting into one sends a zingy current through my palms. It may be my only opportunity to prove myself more courageous than Russell Crowe, who refused to pop a barbequed delicacy into his mouth alongside Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.
I also hope to learn new recipes, considering I have a herd of 2,000 mealworms pasturing in a plastic storage bin in Virginia. While I’m away, they receive a daily cabbage leaf from my mother, who has been a farmer’s daughter, granddaughter, a farmer, a farmer’s wife, and now, a minilivestock farmer’s mother. Their bed of rolled oats simmers at a cold boil, writhed by a constant rain-on-the-roof sound of activity. With their poor eyes buried in a divot of potato, they keep at their voracious munching when light opens on their drawer. Other tan curls slip into darkness beneath edible soil.
Due to their resemblance to the “tequila worm,” mealys are often used in tequila-flavored candies. Neither are there worms in the bottom of Jose Cuervo, although an occasional bottle of mezcal does contain the larvae of the moth Hypopta agavis, included as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s
Also known as chinicuiles, they feed on the Agave americana plant but are not considered pests since they are eaten in Mexican dishes, bathed in hot sauce, dandled with green chili and onion, then swaddled in tortillas.
Though insects have not been widely cultivated for food, the Aztecs of Mesoamerica are thought to have sustained their population-dense society on insects and insect eggs. It is not certain whether they harvested naturally occurring species or domesticated them, but they managed protein sources without large domestic animals. iv
My name is on the press list thanks to an invitation from Marcel Dicke, winner of the Dutch Nobel Prize, the NWO-Spinoza Award, and co-author of The Insect Cookbook, expected in English in early 2014. We have been corresponding via email for months, since I discovered the professor would be a visiting scholar at Cornell University and more accessible for an interview than his usual desk at Wageningen University in The Netherlands.
“It’s going to happen,” Dicke tells me, “I don’t expect the change to be over night, but if Coca-Cola were to stop advertising today, their sales would go down. We must repeat this message. In the Netherlands we’ve repeated it all over.” v
The message is: “We need to re-examine our relationship to insects.”
The message is: “Insects contribute approximately 57 billion dollars a year to society by removing waste, pollinating crops, controlling pests, and serving as a food source for animals higher on the food chain.”
The message is: “A healthy vegetarian diet is not always possible for everyone, for various reasons.”
The message is: “Eighty percent of the world already eats insects.”
The message is: “In terms of biomass, insects are more abundant than we are.”
The message is: “Insects are already present in allowable quantities in such foods as canned tomato soup, peanut butter, chocolate.”
The message is: “Cochineal insects are used to dye imitation crab meat, red M&M’s, pie fillings, sausages, etc.” vi
On the drive to D.C., I pass through the Shenandoah Valley on a June day unseasonably cool enough to have my windows down. A Dragonhunter, or Black Clubtail darts in and catches a three hundred-mile lift. By far the largest clubtail in North America, the species is named for the males’ habit of curling their abdomens underneath them while flying. Landed, its wings span six inches on the back seat and resemble a pair of hairpin lace panties. Its bright green, corn-kernel-sized orbs stare back with 30,00 lenses like mine, unblinking.
In Indonesia and China, dragonfly larvae are egg-battered and fried, or boiled in coconut milk with garlic and ginger for cocktail snacks.
Its yellow and black segmented body outsizes my outstretched hand, reminding me of the salad days of the Carboniferous period. Three hundred million years ago, when the air was up to fifteen percent richer in oxygen, dragonfly wings spanned two and a half feet, humans not even a flicker on the horizon scanned by a trilobite’s eye.
n. a coarse, unsifted powder ground from the edible part of a grain or pulse ground to powder: wheatmeal; cornmeal, or any ground substance resembling this.
The ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust passage commonly recited at funerals is actually taken from The Book of Common Prayer, though it is inspired by a verse in Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your face / you shall eat bread / until you return to the ground / for out of it you were taken; / you are dust / and to dust you shall return.”
Pat Crowley, a hydrologist and former river guide, grew alarmed that the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean due to irrigation. After hearing Dicke’s 2010 TED Talk, “Why Not Eat Insects?” he was inspired to found Chapul Bars. These energy bars gateway crickets into the American diet through familiar media of chocolate and peanut butter. The exotic meal of cricket flour is tucked in alongside chilies, dates, ginger, and lime—the way sushi was introduced to the American public under green curls of avocado.
Crickets are efficient almost 1:1 converters of grain, requiring twelve times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein. They also require a fraction of the 92% of freshwater currently used globally for agriculture and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. vii
Dicke proposes large-scale cultivation of these efficient creatures that can and are being fed on apple juice pulp and other food wastes, are social enough to like crowded conditions, cannot communicate diseases across nervous systems with humans, and, in certain species, contain Omega 3 fatty acids in proportion to fish. Plus, mealys can come of age in my one-bedroom apartment, unlike my parents’ starter-herd purchase of a Black Angus calf named Mikey, which I bottlefed until weaned.
I lost my ento-virginity with a man named Don, an entomologist and professor who helped me prepare mushroom cricket risotto. It did not hurt that Don is handsome and I was hungrier for new experience than I was for arthropods, but what sent me over that incredible divide to become an insectivore who dines weekly on six-legged proteins, is that there is no butchery involved. Granted, there is death, an entropic tradeoff between one creature and another, but no knives are required.
Perhaps that distinction seems hypocritical. I accept that. Growing up surrounded by Whiteface, Midnight, Sukie, Nike, etc. with a freezer full of beef trains one to make discomfiting decisions.
My grandmother, who would swing a chicken by the neck to kill it, died when I was seven. No one kept the hen house operative when she was gone, so it is not petted birds I rue standing over polythene-wrapped trays of poultry. I learned to cook tofu, blanch almonds, boil beans not to have to slice through white tendons and trim gristle. When I was in college, I imagined finding a life partner in someone to dress the chicken, bleach the cutting board so I didn’t have to.
Meal: n. informal—make a meal of, to perform (a task) with unnecessarily great effort.
At any given time, I have roughly a pound of mealys bagged in my freezer. If I want to add protein to my tossed salad or crunch to a slice of pineapple-tomato pizza, I pull out a handful and run them under cold water. Two-three minutes in a sauté pan with a splash of oil, and they sizzle like steam hissing from a crab’s leg.
Bowing my hand over the plate, I examine the gold and amber variation of their bodies. Two weeks ago they were slimmer than a grain of quinoa, and now they are wide as a spaghetti noodle. Though they grew on their own, I am proud. They depended on me to bring them crookneck squash trimmings, apple cores, celery ends, yam skins. They made a living right there in my laundry room on the wealth of my scraps, often times while I slept.
The texture and flavor variety in over 1,000 edible insect species has them increasingly available on gourmet menus in London, The Netherlands, and New York, entering the mainstream the way sushi did, ironically, since both food sources have been enjoyed for centuries.
The message is: “Grasshoppers have 5 mg of iron vs. 3.5 in beef.”
The message is: “Skewered and roasted with salt and vinegar, you’d be surprised how delicious water boatmen are.”
The message is: “Higher consciousness about our nutritional sources is imperative.”
The message is: “Look into a locust’s eyes. They are beautiful, striped. People ask: ‘How can you look into the eyes of something you are going to eat?’ I say, ‘How can you not?’” viii
After Daniella Martin prepares the cicada bruschetta, mealworm guacamole, cricket croquettes, the Embassy staff shoulders the appetizers on silver trays and circulates them through the crowd waiting with glasses of malbec and chardonnay.
Cooked, cicadas are smaller than I expected. A reporter, microphone in hand, asks me to describe their taste as I take a bite. I chew carefully and conjure notes of flax seed and kale leaves, English walnut skins. They are airy protein, lighter than quail wingmeat, wholesome as sardine calcium ribbons. Their grilled bodies, black as cajun catfish, sing with pepper, the sweet glaze of their bodies shiny as if licked with maple syrup.
The Goshute Indians of Utah, accustomed to eating grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets, christened shrimp “sea crickets,” upon first sampling them. ix
Eating stir fry the day after my Embassy visit, the shrimp feels bulbous in my mouth, fatty even, salty, decadent.
i Huis, Arnold van, et. al. “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security,” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome, 2013, p. ix
ii Martin, Daniella. Personal interview. 26 June 2013.
iii Dicke, Marcel, “Why Not Eat Insects?” TedTalk 2010. Web.
iv Huis, Arnold van, et. al. “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security,” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome, 2013, p. 36.
v Dicke, Marcel. Personal interview. 26 June 2013.
vi Dicke, Marcel, “Why Not Eat Insects?” TedTalk 2010. Web.
vii Huis, Arnold van, et. al. “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security,” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome, 2013, p, 20.
viii Dicke, Marcel. Personal interview. 26 June 2013.
ix Ibid. p. 35.
Amy Wright is Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, the recipient of a Peter Taylor fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers' Workshop, and the author of three poetry chapbooks with her fourth forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Her work appears in a number of journals including Drunken Boat, Freerange Nonfiction,Brevity, Western Humanities Review, and American Letters & Commentary.