Food, Glorious... Crickets?!
Appeared in the Vassar Quarterly (Spring/Summer 2017)
This April, during Vassar’s first-ever food symposium, “Building Food: Food, Space, and Architecture,” one presenter explained that the French consider doggie bags tantamount to barbarism. Another—a chef—explored the greatest revenge he could muster against invasive species of fish—to serve them as sushi. And an entrepreneur explained why he is investing time and money in a company that aims to promote a promising source of protein: the cricket.
The symposium was organized by Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Thomas Parker over the last two years, and supported by the French and Francophone Studies Department, Vassar’s Creative Arts Across Disciplines, and other campus offices. Parker’s aim was to present many approaches to cuisine by way of panels, lectures, and tastings, and to inspire attendees “to think about food in new ways, to develop new interests and see where existing interests connected.”
One of the high points of the symposium was the associated luncheon. Students, foodies, and scholars alike crowded into the Alumnae House dining room, awaiting the arrival of celebrity sushi chef and James Beard Award nominee Bun Lai. His reputation preceded him—described by Outside Magazine as having “a voice like Captain America,” Lai possesses charisma and unconventional culinary practices that have propelled him to the forefront of the sustainable food movement. Miya’s—his New Haven, CT, restaurant— is renowned for its exquisite platters of sushi, cleverly laced with the most detested villains of the sea—invasive species of fish.
As Lai spoke of his work, guests were served an array of colorful sushi rolls, layered with sweet potato, soba, and the occasional spiny sea creature. As the crowd tentatively, then enthusiastically devoured Lai’s untraditional take on sushi, the chef spoke of food as an extension of the divine—something that transcends the constrained, physical form. “Food isn’t just fuel,” he remarked. “It’s something spiritual. Food is our way to care for one another, and to have that ability is the most important thing there is.”
While Lai’s methods are certainly unorthodox, he is not alone in thinking that our best hope for solving global crises might lie in reframing the way we think about food. Another presenter at Alumnae House that day, Kevin Bachhuber, disillusioned by the instability of the financial market after the 2008 collapse, left his nine-to-five job in pursuit of a more radical career: insect farming. As the founder of Big Cricket, America’s first edible-insect farm, Bachhuber is firmly convinced that insects are the next frontier of food, but he acknowledges that the U.S. and Western countries lag behind the rest of the world, which has been more receptive to the notion. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential that this new industry provides for us,” he told the audience.
For those unable to imagine a farm hopping with crickets, Bachhuber described the set up: The climate in the building in which the insects are housed is a sticky 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air is rife with the cricket pheromones, which Bachhuber insists have a delightfully calming effect on visitors to the farm.
To assuage any lingering doubts about crickets, Bachhuber served insect-adorned sundaes, an artisti- cally arranged dessert of vanilla ice cream, crushed grasshoppers, and grapes soaked in cricket bitters, all presented in glistening martini glasses and topped off with a golden straw. Nearly everyone partook in the gourmet treat. (One satisfied guest described the insect garnish as “a little salty.”) Many were surprised at their willingness to indulge in such culinary adventures.
While most of the experiential lectures focused on the future of food, some looked to the past. Michael D. Garval ’85, Professor of French at North Carolina State University, bemoaned the chef’s historical struggle to be taken seriously. Although everything from home baking to haute cuisine has found its niche in today’s media—from amateur baking shows like The Great British Bake Off to profiles of the world’s cooking elite in Chef’s Table—masters of cuisine have not typically risen to celebrity status. Garval recounted the story of a chef whose likeness was captured in a statue that was presented at the 1888 Parisian Culinary Exposition— not in bronze or marble, mind you, but in the humbler, more ephemeral medium of lard. This fatty memorial melted away both physically and in the public’s collective memory. “The chef is truly ineligible for memorial commemoration,” Garval lamented.
But in her presentation, Marni Kessler ’87, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Kansas, noted that food itself has captured the imagination of artists since the dawn of humanity; its visual represen- tations can be found in everything from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Renaissance still-lifes overflowing with food and wine. Most renditions of food in art, she noted, are indicative of their historical and geographic context.
Gina Rae La Cerva ’06, from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, talked about how our pursuit of delicacies can often have unintended consequences. One case in point is the edible bird’s nest. Created out of the swiftlet’s saliva, this centuries-old delicacy has entranced both emperors and modern foodies alike. It is traditionally dissolved in water to make a soup, but is also used to make jellies. Today, it is a hot commodity in a global, multibillion-dollar, global market. (eBay lists the delicacy at about $500 per pound.) The harvesting of these nests has reduced the swiftlet population in Borneo by 95 percent, but demand remains high. La Cerva urged the audience to consider the sources of food and their consequences.
As guests filed out of Alumnae House at the close of the conference, the haunting melodies of composer Jonathan Middleton and researcher Robert Bywater reverberated through the building. Made up of seq- uences of proteins converted into music, the “molecular” tunes reminded guests that the future of food is an ever-changing landscape.
—Elena Schultz ’19