Schizo-Tasters: What the Movies Can Teach Us About Branding Insects as Food

Lizzie Wade recently posted an entry to Wired’s Science section titled, “We’ll All Eat Grasshoppers—Once We Know how to Raise Them.” The post investigates the competing strategies in Mexico for delivering grasshoppers to the American market, identifying controlled indoor farms on the one hand and the more laborious methods of outdoor chapulín collection on the other. Since this was for Wired, Wade trains much of her focus on the more tech-savvy—and more easily documented—method of Aspire’s indoor farm method, ending the article with a hopeful suggestion that, “if mezcal can show up on the menus of high-end craft cocktail bars, maybe authentic, organic chapulines can, too.”

This appeal to “high-end” food consumption seems to be a key strategy of insect evangelists hoping to break into the Western market. The problem entomophagists (a person who eats insects for food) face is that American and most modern European cultures have traditionally viewed insects as either inedible or at the extreme “low-end.” And this is precisely why the insect evangelists are working with progressive chefs, for example, in order to propose entomo-centric fine dining. The nouveau riche are suckers for presentation. Why not appeal to that kind of taste if it converts the masses?

As a short-term measure this high-end pitch might be useful for breaking into resistant markets. But there’s a fundamental paradox that’s lurking within this new form of Western consumption, one that all brands like Chapul have to grapple with in their own way. When writers such as Wade offer “350,000 tons of chapulines” as evidence of plenty and Matt McFarland of The Washington Post points to the cricket as the “gateway bug” because they are “everywhere,” the surface appeal is to efficiency. The fact that insects are less resource-draining sources than beef, pork, and chicken allows foodies to applaud them as a fairly sustainable source of protein. However, what if some of this eco-friendly rhetoric accidentally taps into the Western imagination in a way that works directly against the marketing strategy of promoting a product on par with top shelf mezcal?

The West has been imagining insects as food for quite some time, just not in the way that new wave entomophagists would prefer. In fact entomophagy has played an important role in a movie genre that excels at diagnosing the mass consumer’s psyche—sci-fi. Wade herself refers offhandedly to Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant 2013 experimental film, Snowpiercer, as an example of a context within which insects are presented as the “last resort for people who don’t have the money for meat … .” Yet insects play a much richer role than food for the poor in Snowpiercer. And figuring out the significance that they play in a movie like this might be worthwhile for an insect company because it has strong global appeal: According to Wikipedia it’s based on Le Transperceneige, by a trio of the Frenchmen Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Mar Rochette (Europe); it’s directed by Bong Joon-ho, a South Korean (Asia); and IMDB credits the screenwriter Kelly Masterson for the script (North America).

Like other classic sci-fi films, the beginning of Snowpiercer depicts what food will be like for most people in the future.

Joel Gladd with Escargot in Italy

For example, in Ridley Scott’s 2012 Prometheus a group of scientists eat a meal comprised entirely of a colorful sludge—a distillate of unknown vegetal and animal life—while journeying to meet their better selves (the “Engi

neers”). Though no one comments on what they’re actually eating the audience is supposed to assume that, unlike a slurpee or Jamba Juice smoothie, the experience is motivated by utility and health. It’s the purest concept of “health” and “nutrition” imagined for the viewer. This is classic sci-fi stuff. It’s no accident that when entrepreneurs attempted to disrupt the way we eat food, techies turned to this futuristic sci-fi trope with Soylent.

Snowpiercer similarly places sludge-consumption at the beginning of its tale of class oppression and revolution. The Snowpiercer is a dystopian train that somehow managed to salvage a few thousand humans as the world began its deep freeze. In an attempt to preserve order while circumnavigating the world, those responsible for the train placed this remnant within a rigidly fixed hierarchy of lower and higher-class passengers. The most vivid reminder of the bottom class’s place on the train is that they’re sustained entirely off of slimy chunks of food. Their inferior status is reinforced every time they scarf down these distasteful polygons.

Like Prometheus, the heroes of Snowpiercer must sustain themselves with disgusting food before moving to the next human level. As a result, the bottom rung must identify itself entirely with what I’ll call “nutritive taste.” Whether a distillate, in soylent form, or a pasty block, the idea is that future consumers will more or less be forced to disregard what food tastes like. As resources become scarce, most consumers of the Anthropocene (a term geologists are using to describe an era increasingly affected by human forces) will be forcedto eat because it sustains the body’s health in the most efficient way possible.

But something unexpected happens to this familiar ascetic drama in Snowpiercer: the movie investigates the origins of the futuristic gloop. As the revolutionary class fights for advancement and enters the next train section, they discover that their survival food is processed from a huge vat of winged and roach-like insects. When the hero (played by Chris Evans) peers into the vat a whiff of disgust passes across his face, triggering an angry fit that he quickly redirects towards those responsible for feeding him insects. The next revolutionary stage is set into motion by this moment of anti-entomophagy. They refuse to be content with nutritive taste.

What this plot transition from Snowpiercer reveals is that, in the popular imagination at least, the epitome of nutritive taste is eating insects, the source of which is presented as a form of swarming, repulsive spontaneity. This equation is part of key that unlocks the average consumer’s response to insects. From a marketing perspective this presents a mixed bag. On the one hand it’s good news that a taste for insects rules the future. On the other hand it’s not a kind of taste that relies on desire.

There’s another part to this consumer unconscious, however. Later, in their march towards the front of the train the revolutionary guard reclaims their ancient right to dine on meat (in Prometheus the arrival on the Engineers’ planet is similarly marked by one of the protagonists transforming into a monstrous carnivore). And, fittingly, as they rise in class status the level of sustenance scales up. Our heroes first pass through a greenhouse that appears as a painstakingly manicured vegetable paradise. Their initial brush with luxury then comes after passing through an aquarium to find a sushi bar where they’re invited to dine on a rare exotic fish. “Do any of you feel like sushi?”, Tilda Swinton’s machiavellian character asks the revolutionaries. “You people are very lucky. This is only served twice in a year.” This dining experience marks the first time they’ve consumed food for more than nutritional sustenance since the apocalyptic freeze. The audience gets to witness them relearn the art of what I’ll call “rarefied taste.” In eating by rarefied tastethey begin to feel at home again. It’s no accident that Pat Crowley himself referred to the introduction of sushi into the Western diet as his model for Chapul. To repeat this model he’s working to sneak rear-car food into the front.

The arc of Snowpiercer thus relies on a clear distinction between two fundamentally different kinds of taste: nutritive vs. rarefied. These forms of consumption in turn rely on two fundamentally different kinds of life: swarming life on the one hand and carefully regulated ecosystems on the other. According to my reading, this complete equation is the entire key to the Western consumer’s response to eating insects.

What’s unexpected about this arrangement is that, according to the Hollywood at least, our taste is divided less between a preference for meat consumption over vegetable consumption than between spontaneous life and life that requires careful tending to. My dad’s a traditional American meat eater but he loves the greenness of kale now, in part because it’s been branded as a precious commodity. Of course crickets, grasshoppers, and mealworms require ingenious management in order to sustain a human community over a long period of time; but the popular imagination has not caught up with that reality. The kale growing in your backyard remains fairly exotic (linking exoticism to the local is the genius of locavorism) while that cricket chirping outside your front door needs to be kicked away. This fiction of immediate, swarming spontaneity is what brand marketers must debunk, whereas repeating the theme of “abundance” and “they’re everywhere” will only reinforce it. It has to be rarefied.

Therein lies the rub. What “rarity" entails is slippery and often requires inventive marketing. One of the biggest challenges that I see for those involved in the emergent insect food industry is that they’re entering a market that has been utterly transformed by a version of rarity that took over in the 90s and early 2000s—terroir, a term referring to “specificity of place” that was borrowed from the wine industry to help codify the locavore movement. Dan Barber’s recently published The Third Plate identifies some unexpected long-term trends that can be traced to this increasing consumer preference for markers of uniqueness, particularity, and evidence of regional labor. One effect seems to be that the terroir-ification of food drives a handful of trendy products towards unsustainable levels of consumption. Another is that it hasn't yet convincingly appealed to a broad spectrum of those with limited income. That’s not to say all forms of locavorism face these problems. In fact it's blatantly obvious that eating "local" is nearly always a good thing. Nevertheless, it might be for the benefit of everyone if those disrupting the mainstream food industry followed Barber’s insight that locavorism is a species of terroir-ification, and terroir is—as its roots in wine obviously suggest—often used to manufacture, control, and profit from rarity. Wealthy people are easy to convince they should eat local because that kind of consumption is in perfect accord with their terroir-ified palettes.

By contrast, with their bizarre levels of efficiency, insects as a major source of protein (and omegas, and chitin, and many other healthy things I’ve been told) have the potential to shift some of the undesirable effects of modern taste. Insects should play a significant role in the Anthropocene. To do that, however, brands will first have to navigate the consumer unconscious, simultaneously pitching “efficiency” and “taste” in a manner that doesn't accidentally insert the product into the hidden equation that undergirds the (currently Western) popular revulsion against insects.

What this kind of marketing strategy would look like is something I suspect Chapul is working out right now. It might be that insect evangelists can simultaneously pitch an “efficient” and “rare” product by harnessing the high price of cricket flour, appealing to palettes that are both high-end and eco-friendly. According to Melissa Wiley’s economic forecast of the cricket flour industry, however, 2015 or 2016 may be the year that the base ingredient drastically declines in price. That’s good for manufacturing products but potentially bad for cultivating a high-end brand image. Is there, then, a cricket version of “terroir” that could satisfy discriminating palettes? In my opinion the virtue of insects is that they work against the fetish of rarity and specificity. They’re unique in that they’re both resource efficient and somewhat indifferent to locale (you won’t be sniffing them for hints of whether they grew up by almond trees and sassafras). That’s what makes them fit for the apocalypse. But then again I’m not an entomologist and may be on the wrong track here.

It may turn out that food companies won’t need a consistent marketing strategy at all. I suspect that many consumers go through their week like me, splitting their food consumption between highly efficient, habitual meals that are driven by “nutritive taste” on the one hand (with the pulsating help of Vitamix, often appearing in sludge-like, Promethean fashion), and somewhat wasteful, more complex, and usually more expensive meals driven by rarefied taste on the other hand (slowly enjoying local heirlooms and artisanal cheeses in true bistro fashion; or having a chef deconstruct the cricket with nitrogen foam). Most of us are already schizo-tasters, both fit for the future and creatures of the past. Perhaps food producers will continue to feed this contradiction. 

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