“My mission began with the desire to change my own mind, and when that worked, I immediately wanted to change others’ minds too.”
Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm (Iris Books, 2019)
Savannah Chorn and Georganna Jeter: Your essays explore entomophagy, or eating insects, through different lenses – from childhood memories, anecdotes, spiritual connections to nature, factual benefits of adding insects to the human diet, and so on. Is there a lens that you particularly enjoy?
I love writing about my family and growing up on a farm. I’m fortunate to have fond childhood memories of being surrounded by cow pastures, shoestring branches, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. I love to bring onto the page my experiences bottle-feeding calves and fishing for crawdads with my brother to forge connections with readers and the natural world.
Is there a particular approach you find most effective in erasing the stigma that Western culture has placed on eating insects?
Coming to entomophagy with a lot of reluctance and trepidation makes my perspective relatable, according to audiences I’ve spoken with. Like many westerners, I never intentionally ate insects until I learned that crickets, grasshoppers, honeypot ants, and other edible insects could be cultivated as an ecologically sustainable protein. Even then, fear nearly prevented me from taking my first bite. But I knew that fear was learned and cultural rather than beneficial. If I could unlearn my fear, I think anyone can.
The joy you receive from the adventures of eating insects is quite apparent and compelling. What is your favorite insect to eat, based solely on taste?
Although the name sounds unappetizing, wax moth larvae are quite delicious. They feast on raw honey with the sole goal of fattening up for the metamorphosis to come, so their popcorn-shrimp-sized bodies are sweet and creamy as a soft cheese. My partner and I like to sauté them with a dollop of maple syrup and add them to wild greens.
Your essays are simultaneously academically inclined, filled with data and interesting definitions throughout, and at the same time beautifully and poetically written. They ground the unknown of the experience of eating insects in the known and the recognizable. For example, I especially enjoyed your description of eating a cricket: “It conjures a flake of rainbow trout or butter bean that melts like an ice sliver away from its skin, disappearing faster than a crystal on a sorbet spoon.” In what ways has your experience in writing poetry influenced your essays?
Thank you so much. Your compliments make me think of something my Dad would say after I left home for college, which is that “You can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t the country out of the girl.” Beneath my Dad’s assurance, though, trembles an urgency of that country to be described by those who left it, like me, for jobs in cities. I’m always seeking to return to that landscape, in my mind, and words have become a route quicker than the six-hour drive to my parents’ farm. I’m grateful you find poetry in the descriptions, since they’re rooted in images of the fish, birds, trees, mountains, and waterways I long to preserve, from necessity as well as adoration.
How has your family encouraged you in starting your own mini-farm of mealys? Do you feel a connection with the generations of farmers in your family because of it?
Growing up on a farm, I witnessed the crucial relationship between the land, its stewards, animals, and their caretakers. That inheritance of respect and responsibility directly inspired me to start a mealy farm and to provide my own food sources as had generations of farmers in my family, but my family was pretty shocked by my choice of livestock! Of course, I couldn’t raise apples, beeves, or chickens in my one-bedroom apartment. My farming choices were limited by circumstance, but bugs were pests to be outwitted when my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents came of age, not delicacies to be sautéed with garlic and onions. I can only imagine what my grandmother would say if she knew that I am rearing insects she would have thrown out if they got into a bag of her flour.
But, just in the time since my mother was a girl to now, the world population has more than tripled. Agriculture changed significantly, too, including the incorporation of more mechanized equipment and nitrogen fertilizers. I see insect cultivation as one more means of making food production more efficient and increasingly environmentally sustainable. In theory, my family supports this initiative, but they are much slower to welcome insects as a food source, except for fish and chickens. But, that’s how every generation builds on the one before.
You seem to have become part of a community that celebrates and practices entomophagy. Dr. Marcel Dicke influenced your essays and insect endeavors. And your mutual interest in entomophagy created a new bond between you and your partner Don that is enjoyable to watch deepen throughout your chapbook. Does it help to have such a vibrant community to work and collaborate with? Do you have any comments on this community in general and its impact on your writing?
I’m glad you recognize the need for community. I try to illustrate for my students the importance of conversing in real-time as well as on the page with like and unlike minds. Particularly with a counter-culture movement, like eating insects in the West, it helps to have a support network, but all writers need allies, guides, and cohorts. That a romance was born with my partner Don, who is an entomologist, by my joining the edible-insect food revolution has made it all the more rewarding. Romance may even be inherent in the belief that any risk or attempt to triumph over fear will pay off.
In an interview with Daniel Cross Turner, you say: “To write with intimacy requires knowing and—importantly, discovering qualities about contexts and cultures that you may not want to know.” Would you say that this applies to Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm as well? In your essays you encounter many other cultures, such as your first encounter with silkworm pupae from Southeast Asia in “Beondegi, canned” you access Dutch culture through Dr. Marcel Dicke. Would you say that knowing these cultures where consuming insects is already a norm, or is becoming one, helps you write about entomophagy with intimacy?
Definitely. Intimacy requires curiosity or appreciation for another’s context and culture, but with Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm it was knowledge that I sought with a great deal of eagerness. I was encouraged to try insects after learning that many other cultures had been eating insects for thousands of years and in fact that eating insects was likely foundational for our early human ancestors. (It’s even been said that our appetites for crunchy foods were inspired by insects!)
I might also note that although intimate cultural experiences often come with travel, increasingly in a world where flights yield high carbon emissions, it’s important to recognize that we can commune with other cultures locally by sharing food and other rituals. For instance, in one of the essays in this collection, I imagine a dinner table as a kind of secular temple, where we gather to share peace and gratitude, and to gain a new perspective on our differences.
Your reference to Thoreau’s Walden near the end of “Mǣl” particularly caught my attention, as I’m a literature major. Just out of curiosity, who are some of the authors that have most influenced Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm or your writing as a whole?
Broadly, contemporary writers like Dorothy Allison, Eric LeMay, Joni Tevis, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Dinty W. Moore influence my writing. But Thoreau was one revolutionary that I resonated with while writing this book. I also find his example problematic, since social change is necessarily collective rather than isolationist, but to stand alone can be a useful metaphor for beginning to upset any cultural paradigm.
Do you have a dream publication you’d like to have your poetry or essays appear in? What publications do you most closely follow?
I got to fulfill several dreams by getting an essay published in Georgia Review this summer and having another forthcoming in Fourth Genre this fall. These followed the dream of appearing in Kenyon Review with “Mēl,” the first essay in Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm. I read all of these publications regularly and listen to the Kenyon Review podcast. I’m glad you understand the need to regularly read the journals you hope to contribute to because it means everything to value and understand the community conversation you are entering.
Your website says that you are the author of “two poetry books, one collaboration, and six chapbooks.” What made you choose to address the subject matter of Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm in prose rather than verse? Which form do you usually gravitate to when beginning a new piece?
When I was in college and graduate school, poetry seemed the most flexible genre for exploring new territory, but lately, essays have become the more expansive form for my work. I continue to read and write in both genres, but the books that have excited me the most in the last several years have been by essayists. I’m thinking of the wild possibilities evidenced by Amy Fusselman’s Idiophone, T Clutch Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, and Wendy S. Walters’ Multiply/Divide.
Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm is a truly effective force in convincing Americans of the benefits (and even beauty) of consuming insects; I started looking up where to buy cricket protein bars after reading just the first essay. How long after you started incorporating insects into your diet did you begin to see the potential for your writing? Was it initially more of an artistic impulse or did you begin with a mission to affect change?
Thank you. I hope so. I know I attended some early meetings with other proponents of the edible-insect movement to discuss USDA food regulations for insects, consumer biases, marketing strategies, etc., so I got to see that growth and initiative first-hand. But I’m not sure I can separate my social motives from my artistic ones, since they rose together in concert, organically. I know there was really no time lag between eating bugs and writing about it, since the first dish I made was cricket mushroom risotto on what Don and I would later think of as our first date—after I reached out to interview him. My mission began with the desire to change my own mind, and when that worked, I immediately wanted to change others’ minds too.
You quote David Hinton in your essay “THIHACOIAAGT” as saying “until [people] come to understand [the connection between one’s mind, body, and nature] as a continuum—they’re not going to care” (26). What does this continuum mean to you? Outside of what you’ve written in this chapbook, how would you explain this continuum to someone who doesn’t care yet?
That continuum always meets us in the present moment, in our bodies, where we live. For those who do not recognize the connection between our minds, bodies, and nature, I hope that those who do can call attention to it. In the classroom, I often see a student’s eyes brighten during discussion when another student gives an example of being in nature. It is as if we wake each other with reminders of something we all know but forget. If nothing else is democratic, the body is, for inherent in our bodies is a system of checks and balances that binds us to the natural world.
As for those who do not care, I would call on Dr. Marcel Dicke, who believes that “it is just a matter of time” before we care, as food scarcity and the repercussions of traditional agriculture become untenable.
Finally, do you have any new favorite insect-centric recipes you’ve discovered since publishing Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm? Where can curious readers access safe mealys/crickets to begin their culinary adventures?
I began by modifying favorite family recipes to include insects, and these dishes remain some of mine and Don’s favorites. The key to trying most new things is to pair something familiar with the unfamiliar—whether it be sushi or chocolate-covered ants. I’m glad many restaurants and grocery stores in the U.S. have begun to make more edible-insect products available. I’ve been thrilled by the speed of the industry rising to meet consumer demands. There are now dozens of convenient, easy products for curious folks to try, such as Exo Bars, Chirps Chips, Chapul protein powder, Cricket Pasta from Bugsolutely. I would recommend that anyone interested in sampling insects start by ordering some of these products online if they are not available at a store near you.
But it’s important to know that not all insects are edible, and even those that are can prove problematic for folks who are allergic to shellfish–since insects are closely related species. But insects also provide a welcome alternative to common allergens like milk, soy, nuts, and gluten, so folks with those allergies can find their options expanding. We’re at the beginning of the cultivation of insects as a food source, and with almost one thousand edible species to choose from, there are some very exciting culinary prospects.
Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one poetry collaboration, and six chapbooks, including the nonfiction collection, Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm. Most recently, her essays won first place in two contests, sponsored by London Magazine and Quarterly West. Her essays and poetry appear in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She is also is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 journal and Zone 3 Press.