Feed Me, Seymour
I would be lying if I said that The Little Shop of Horrors didn’t play a role in my love for carnivorous plants. That and dinosaurs, I suppose. There is something so very inherently primal about a plant that dissolves the flesh of a living thing to sustain itself; that nature evolved to a point where its entire being exists to trap another thing.
Everyone knows that classic image of a Dionaea (better known as a Venus flytrap) as its jaw slams shut over a helpless fly as its little legs stick out, twitching, as it suffers a slow death. The plant uses the tiny hairs on its inner surface to sense movement which triggers the signal to attack and then SNAP! The Sarracenia family (American pitcher plant) creates the illusion of a flower. When its intended prey enters, it gets tricked by “windows” of light shining through thinner sections of the plant to make the prey believe it is going in the right direction while it’s actually willingly moving towards its impending doom.
Likewise with Droseras (sundews) whose sticky colourful beads of stalked mucilaginous glands beckon the unknowing, locking them into place as the stem curls over to snack upon them. Like a lot of carnivorous plants, sundews actually make their own food and only use insects to supplement the poor mineral nutrition of the soil in which they grow. It was this thought that got me interested in eating bugs for my own nutritional needs – if it’s good enough for my collection of plant babies, and 2 billion people, then it’s good enough for me.
Sure, I’ve eaten bugs as a kid. My grandmother regularly baked ants or weevils into her cakes – not on purpose, of course, she was just a bit rough and ready with her aged flours and box cake “recipes”. I also had Imbrasia belina (Mopane worms) on a school trip once and with gin at a fancy dinner. But bugs have always been presented to me as food that was “othered” at best or at worst, Fear Factor-gross. But the truth is insects play a massive role in the diet of most none western cultures as either supplements when other protein staples are scarce or as delicacies.
According to a UN report called “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security”, markets in Kinshasa boast an abundant year-round supply of caterpillars and the average household eats approximately 300g of caterpillars per week.
In Japan, the larvae of Vespula and Dolichovespula (yellow jacket wasps), locally known as “hebo”, are commonly consumed. During the annual Hebo Festival, food products made from the larvae of the wasps are popular delicacies.
At local markets in Uganda, 1kg of Ruspolia nitidula (grasshoppers), a delicacy, can fetch prices 40 percent higher than 1kg of beef.
Ant eggs – larvae and pupae – in their reproductive form (sometimes called queen brood) are a popular food in Asia, and are even sold in cans in Thailand.
And, of course, there’s everyone’s local favourite: Mopane worms. An estimated 9.5 billion are harvested annually in southern Africa; a practice estimated to be worth US$85 million.
Out of the 1.4 million described animal species on earth about a million of those are insects, and millions more are believed to exist. Contrary to popular belief, only 5 000 of that 1 million can be considered harmful to crops, livestock or human beings. So why aren’t more bugs on the menu at Tasha’s?
Somewhere along the line we let our bias get in the way of the fact that caterpillars can taste like lobster and fried scorpions taste like shrimp – other beasties that the west shunned for many years. The tide is turning slowly as famous chefs add more bugs to their menus; you can eat ants on a live shrimp (why it has to be alive I don’t know) at Noma or blue corn waxworm tacos at Don Bugito. Alex Atala famously brought Amazonian ants to the global stage on his episode on Chef’s Table as he proclaimed “they taste like ginger” and stuffed them into a coconut meringue. But when you’re not paying $200 for a tasting menu, how do the rest of us basics attuned to the practice start eating more bugs?
Cricket flour is starting to trend as an alternative protein supplement. My other indulgence when I am not nursing my 146 indoor plants (34 of which are carnivorous) is the American entrepreneurial show Shark Tank where there have been some hefty investments in bugs. On the show money hungry businesses preach about the benefits of cricket farming as they throw around the word “sustainable”. They describe how you only need 0,0005% of the water to get 450g of crickets that you do to get the same weight of beef. And how you get the same amount of protein in weight from crickets as you do pork. Some even call it vegan, which I really don’t get – bugs have heartbeats too, guys. But the Sharks and America have bought in to products like Chirps, chips made from cricket flour.
“A Swiss study showed that people are more likely to try insects when they are incorporated into other foods,” says Rose Wang, Six Foods co-founder and Chirps producer, “but that can change.”
As these businesses start turning million dollar profits one can only hope that bugs don’t go the way of other super foods such as quinoa, making it impossible for the millions who survive off them unable to afford to do so. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo they have a Yansi saying: “As food, caterpillars are regulars in the village but meat is a stranger”. Let’s just make sure that this sustainable super food is sustainable for all and that there may be a few left for my carnivorous plant babies.
Sylvia McKeown is possibly the most awkward lifestyle journalist and illustrator in Joburg. You will most likely find her eating some form of breakfast food (at any given time of day) while staring at the closest plant available.
Illustration by Sylvia McKeown