05 Philosophy II: Denaturalizing Edibility

Consider the lobster – again. This once-despised creature, deemed a bottom-feeding parasite suitable only for fertilizer and animal feed until the late 19th century, regulated against in the US so prisoners wouldn’t be forced to eat it, is now a symbol of excess: center piece of grills, thermidors, cultural festivals, and a major economic asset. Consider crayfish, or “mud bugs,” too: freshwater crustaceans that subsist on decomposing matter and give rice farmers in Louisiana a way to diversify their fields.

Both came to be accepted much as Japanese staples such as raw tuna, seaweed, tofu, and matcha made their way into the global mainstream – a shift driven not by necessity but by desire. Could lobsters, crayfish, or sushi provide a historical precedent for insects, fermented proteins, cellular meat, algae or any other perennially harvestable, versatile, and nutrient-rich (or simply less-bad) alternative? Part of the alchemical magic of the current food system is how it takes raw materials it is too cumbersome to eliminate and dresses them in ways that make them appealing. Could a new range of resilient, high efficiency ingredients enter the industrial food supply or form the basis for new food cultures as yet to come into existence?

What it teaches us is that edibility is not innate in things. All foods needed to be discovered. Instead, edibility is constructed according to knowledge about the matter in question, its benefits and chemical effects, cultural practice and accessibility. This changes over time according to environmental conditions. Insects are a major source of protein used in a wide variety of dishes in South America, Africa and Asia. In much of the global north, the learning process and disgust reflex that served an important evolutionary function (in preventing humans from consuming rotten or toxic food) has contaminated an entire category of edible creatures through their association with decay and waste. Pigs once suffered from a comparable misrepresentation, which is why their supposed greed and voraciousness remains encoded in our language while connotations around tenderloin and charcuterie are unblemished.

Yet westerners already eat insects in the form of food colouring. The ingredient known as “carmine,” “natural red four,” “crimson lake” or “E120” refers to the cactus-dwelling cochineal of South America, found widely in yogurts, cakes, sodas, and lipsticks. The bounds of edibility and inedibility, food and non-food, are broader and more porous than we think. We eat copper and zinc to boost our immune system and must monitor the iron levels in our blood lest they fall too low. We regularly ingest that which might seem harmful and use harmful substances to suggest edibility, as in food photography where meat is basted with motor oil to glisten on cue and ice cream is more likely to be dyed wall-filler than anything that might melt under a hot studio lights.

The journal Frontiers in Nutrition describes a 2008 study in which participants were less likely to eat a mealworm truffle after being told about its ecological benefits and more likely to eat it after being told it would make them cooler. Politics, clearly, is something we eat, where consumption according to a given script becomes a ticket to group membership. This may refer to cultural practices rooted in geography and personal history, but it could also mean the semiotic preferences at your chosen supermarket: whether you buy green-labelled products (organic, or at least earthy on its own terms) or white-labelled (basic, utilitarian, no marketing can fool me).

The adoption of new food types, like fashion or political ideas, spreads through existing social groups and moves most efficiently when laced with libidinal appeal. Desire is networked but so is disgust. The separation of clean and unclean, first observed at home as children, leaves an impression that entomophagy evangelists may struggle to overcome. Much in the way McDonald’s uses bright colors, intense flavors, and trend-adjacent Happy Meals to get kids hooked, the neurological grooves written in early life can prove difficult to rewire. There is a widely-held belief that certain colors, textures, flavors and sensations suggest poison to humans. Yet there is an established process of adoption, familiar from evolutionary science, where we sample a newly discovered berry or other could-be food in small amounts before increasing the dose, assuring its safety before returning that which has been foraged to the group. Yet this process can be engineered and surmounted. Ultimately, as discussed below, the main obstacle to emerging food cultures may not be picky eaters but the trillion-dollar wedge of government subsidies that is the hidden infrastructure behind the dishes, recipes, and products available on the market.