Book Review — Insects: An Edible Field Guide

Insects: An Edible Field Guide by Stefan Gates

Insects: An Edible Field Guide
Stefan Gates
Ebury Press, 2017

Food trend analysts predict that bugs will be our major source of protein within just a few years. However this may squick you, discounting an actual apocalypse, it’s probably safe to say that we’ll continue to eat beef, chicken, fish, and pork as long as it still exists. But bugs are a hot food trend, one that major supermarkets are getting in on, and that chefs are checking out, although mostly as a novelty, but with some creativity and an eye to nutrition and the environment.

Stefan Gates, food writer and presenter of TV shows, is no stranger to eating weird things. He’s based a big part of his career on it, in fact. Over the years he’s eaten plenty of bugs and is a fan of this alternative protein source. His latest book prepares us for the days when we turn to crickets and meal worms instead of a nice roast chicken.

Gates starts by pointing out that two billion people willingly choose to eat insects on a regular basis, and that people in the western world are actually eating more insects than we realize, both in the form of the red dye cochineal (made from the wings of the cochineal beetle, and thus permitted to be called “natural colour” which means it ends up in pretty much every prepared food that is red or pink — yes, even your strawberry yogurt), as well as all the little bits that show up in prepared food like jam or canned vegetables.

He offers a primer on the taste of insects, benefits and dangers, a bit about the science of entomology (the study of insects), and his own reasons for developing an interest in insects as cuisine. The book is then divided into geographical region with a listing for each edible insect with field notes that include an overview of the bug, habitat, taste, dangers (if any), and how to cook or prep each insect. For instance, Gates lists cicadas as nutty, with similarities to chicken, and offers up a recipe for Cicada Florentines.

Each entry is accompanied by a line drawing of the critter by Candela Riveros, and these lovely sketches hearken back to old style field guides of the Victorian era.

One issue that Gates doesn’t address particularly well is where the inquisitive bug-eater is suppose to find these delicacies. He points out that foraging is a serious business in countries like Thailand, and that farmed insects such as crickets are a growing business. But unless you want to stand out in the woods with a net and a jar like when you were a kid, the easiest way to try insects is to buy them from a pet store, where crickets and mealworms are readily available for feeding to pet reptiles and amphibians. (Here in Canada, a national grocery chain has just introduced packaged cricket powder — to be added to “smoothies, sauces chilis, curries, and baking batter” — but by weight it is currently 5 times the price of a top sirloin roast, so it’s unlikely that it will catch on as a regular purchase for most people.)

Ultimately, Insects: An Edible Field Guide is a fun book that most people are not going to take especially seriously, despite Gates’ enthusiasm and dedication to the issue. Trendy or not, it’s going to take a lot of effort (or an apocalypse) to get westerners to willingly eat insects on a regular basis.

(For more information about insect farming and eating, check out this article in The National Post by Laura Brehaut.)