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Would You Like a Side of Grasshoppers With That?

Would You Like a Side of Grasshoppers With That?

Bowl of fried grasshoppers with one skewered on a long toothpick

Years ago, out to dinner with friends, I sent back an order of pad Thai because there was a cricket in it. When we showed the waitress, she asked, “Do you want something else?” Since the sautéed cricket had ruined our appetites, we did not want anything else.

Recent developments in the world of entomophagy – the use of insects as food – have caused me to reconsider whether we overreacted to that cricket. In most of the world, insects are a routine part of the diet. Just not in the United States or Canada – at least, not yet.

Even our ancient Israelite ancestors may have made meals of bugs. In next week’s section of the Torah portion, Sh’mini, (which, because of Passover, is split between this Shabbat and next Shabbat on the Reform calendar), we find this passage about insects lurking among the more familiar rules about which land animals, birds, and fish are fit for eating:  

These you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground. Of these you may eat: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. (Lev. 11:21-22)

In this country and Canada, we tend to limit our carnivorous palates to meat, fish, and fowl, but this passage opens the door to crickets, locusts, and grasshoppers. At a Mexican restaurant, once, I ordered tacos with chapulines – fried grasshoppers – to satisfy my curiosity, if not my taste buds. I consider myself an adventurous eater, but there was a psychological block. Here, the taboo against eating bugs is strong.

A swarm of new companies is trying to change how non-bug-eaters think about eating bugs. Take, for example, the Israeli startup Hargol, which gets its name from the list of permitted insects in Lev. 11:22. The company sells grasshopper-based protein powder, and the list of merits is compelling: high protein content, low fat, almost neutral taste, minimal processing, and kosher certification.

But it’s not only about health and convenience. There’s a food justice angle, too. The list of selling points continues: highly efficient feed conversion, low water footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. And although it isn’t listed, there’s also the benefit of avoiding the slaughter and cruel treatment of billions of cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs in the factory farming system.

As the Religious Action Center states on its food justice website: “Food justice is a social justice issue at the intersections of environmental sustainability, public health, economic justice, and deals with ethical eating choices, agricultural and food policy, and more.”

What we choose to eat has moral and economic implications far beyond a single meal. The closer I look at factory farmed meat, the farther away I want to move from it.

That’s why I became a “reducetarian.” The term was coined by Brian Kateman, author of The Reducetarian Solution: How the Surprisingly Simple Act of Reducing the Amount of Meat in Your Diet Can Transform Your Health and the Planet. His team’s mission is to reduce the consumption of meat and animal products.

It’s not that I stopped eating meat altogether; I eat less. When presented with a meat or vegetarian option, I will usually choose the vegetarian alternative.

To a vegetarian, reducetarianism may seem lazy or hypocritical. But advocates of reducetarianism make a pragmatic argument: It’s easier to get humans to eat less meat than to forego meat altogether. And even a 10% reduction in meat consumption has a huge net effect on health and the environment.

Which brings me back to bugs. I haven’t given them a serious shot, but I think I should. In 2013, the United Nations issued a food report with a call to eat more insects. According to the National Geographic Society, “Some two billion people eat a wide variety of insects regularly, both cooked and raw; only in Western countries does the practice retain an ‘ick’ factor among the masses.”

Cultural taboos are strong, but the moral arguments are stronger. The benefits of bugs include more sustainable farming, more efficient production of protein and fat, and ultimately more affordable food for more people.

Still, for Americans and Canadians to stomach bugs in our diet will require a cultural shift. As more insect products hit the shelves and more restaurants serve bugs, it will become normal.

In the Jewish world, a group of scholars of Jewish law has hosted several events called “mesora dinners” in Jerusalem and the U.S. The group defines these meals as a chance to “pass on the traditions of kosher animals and birds in a hands-on, enjoyable way,” with a focus on unusual kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). The meals have included locusts, based on the Leviticus passage about permissible insects and kashrut traditions that have been lost to the Western palate.

In a way, then, eating bugs is less an innovation than a return to tradition. “Renew our days as in the past,” we like to say. So, pass the grasshoppers.

Rabbi David Segal was born and raised in Houston, TX, where he attended Congregation Emanu El. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2010. Together with his wife, Cantor Rollin Simmons, he served the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen, Colorado, until 2017. Today, he and his family reside in Houston, where he is the Texas Organizer of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as well as a teacher and writer.

Rabbi David Segal
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