The Normalization of Edible Insects: Interview with Joseph Yoon

Joseph Yoon is a Brooklyn-based chef and the executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, which aims to raise awareness on the burgeoning field of edible insects. He is known for the Brooklyn Bugs Festival, an event featuring cooking demonstrations and insect cuisine.

Harvard Political Review: Why should we eat bugs?

Joseph Yoon: There’s a lot of reasons why we should start incorporating insects into our diets.  The United Nations addressed the issues of food scarcity and sustainability and addressed the question: how are we going to responsibly and sustainably feed the world’s population in 2050? One of its solutions was with edible insects. They are nutritious and sustainable in that you can mass produce insects at a scale with a minimum carbon imprint compared with traditional livestock like beef or chicken or pork. One thing that I think is very important to note with all this is that the idea of saving the world by eating insects is a bit off-putting. I avoid being too dogmatic or preachy when sharing the joy of edible insects. It’s a test of responsibility to the Earth, responsibility to future generations, and it brings me personal joy when I am able to do something and contribute, something that I know is not only delicious, but something that is positive for the Earth.

HPR: How did you get involved with edible insects?

JY: I actually first got started through an artistic project that a friend asked me to participate in. I agreed to work on the art project, not knowing about the UN report, but when I first started looking at working with edible insects as a chef, it didn’t take me very long to find that report and for it to motivate me to really get behind that research and do as much as I can to try and raise awareness.

HPR: What do you think was behind the success of the Brooklyn Bugs Festival?

JY: The level of interest since I started a year and a half ago has risen exponentially because of my work as a chef and my intent. Am I trying to promote a food trend and get a viral video? No. I made my point of view very clear in the press releases. The media and other bug entrepreneurs knew I was coming in with a great deal of respect, a great deal of curiosity, and an intent that was not to sensationalize eating insects.

I feel very fortunate that the way that I’ve been sharing my work on edible insects has resonated, and 98 percent of the media has portrayed what we’re doing with respect to our point of view and without tremendously sensationalizing it.

HPR: Do you think the coverage of the festival in mainstream media outlets such as NPR and the New York Times will be a turning point in the mainstreaming of bugs in American cuisine?

JY: I don’t think there’s going to be a turning point that’s defined by one article or one event. My goal in normalizing edible insects is to engage everyone, not just chefs or adventurous food eaters. This movement to try and change the collective consciousness of 300 million Americans, plus the Western world, will be a community effort and driven by a large group of people over a long period of time. That being said, I think that these articles are beneficial and will help to raise awareness, and we’re one step of validation closer to normalization.

HPR: Besides increasing normalized media coverage, how can edible insects be normalized in American cuisine? What are the main barriers to that normalization?

JY: Part of the normalization, like I was saying before, requires the engagement of a large group of people. The more it’s visible on social media, the more media coverage there is, the more normalized it starts becoming. I’ve been talking to a lot of musicians and artists and writers who’ve started incorporating it into work, and being able to penetrate culturally is going to be such a huge thing.

I’m thrilled to see cricket chips and cricket energy bars, but we really need hot meals, where people can go to the grocery store and eat a meal that satisfies their nutritional needs, satisfies their cravings, and they go, “Wow, that was delicious. I’m craving Brooklyn Bugs mac and cheese.”

The availability and visibility of bugs are very important parts of the normalization process, as well as getting the right policy makers involved to start putting the funding into this. We’ve started attracting venture capitalists and big food producers. Some of them have started to put money into this because they’re confident this will be a food of the future that has the right regulations in place. I’m happy if I can just spark the right flames and get the right twigs in the fire. Brooklyn Bugs can’t do everything, but if we can help to advance this conversation and the awareness and the appreciation, then we know we’re doing the right thing.

HPR: What differences have you noticed between Korean and American cultures in terms of eating insects?

JY: My parents, aunts, and uncles all talked about how they used to eat insects as kids, but they were kind of turned off by it in their adult years. That’s part of industrialization and globalization. Furthermore, the rise of Western packaged goods shows a level of cultural hierarchy back when Korea was still developing. I think that as the American consciousness starts appreciating whole foods again (not just prepackaged foods loaded with preservatives), as we go to more whole grains and stuff like that, that opens the door to the conversation to look back at insects as potential sources of food in my mind.

HPR: What’s your favorite bug recipe or bug product?

JY: I get asked that question a lot, and I almost dislike answering that question. It’s almost like asking a painter what their favorite color is. It takes the perfect spectrum of colors to create the perfect painting, and it take a lot of different ingredients and applications to create the perfect dish. What I’m trying to do is demonstrate the diversity of edible insects and promote the fact that there are so many edible insects, so many dishes, so many applications, so I hate having to limit myself to just one. But since you asked, black ants, grasshoppers, crickets, and scorpions are among my favorites.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Image Source: Flikr/Shankaronline

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