Monday, March 4, 2013

The Locusts Are Coming! Yum!

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel and zootorah.blogspot.com.)

In the last few days, a devastating plague of locusts, numbering in the tens of millions, has been sweeping across Egypt. In Israel, the Ministry of Agriculture is on full alert. A special hotline has been set up, and the pesticides have been prepared. Hopefully, modern agricultural technology will help us avoid disasters such as that of 1915, when a plague of locusts in Israel led to much tragedy.

Meanwhile, I have my own early warning system - a friend on military duty near the Egyptian border has promised to call me if swarms arrive. I'd love to see it first-hand, and to catch a couple of hundred to feed to my reptile collection - and to eat myself.

It is commonly overlooked that not only does the Torah permit man to eat certain mammals, birds and fish, but it even permits him to eat certain insects - namely, several types of locusts. The identification of the kosher varieties was lost amongst European Jews, who were not exposed to locust swarms. But Jews from North Africa maintained a tradition regarding kosher locusts.

The expert on identifying kosher species today is my colleague Dr. Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh b'Mesoret Yisrael. He has identified the species for which there is the most widespread tradition amongst North African Jews as Schistocercia gregaria, the Egyptian desert locust. This is by far the most common species of locust, and it is the species currently swarming in Egypt.

According to many authorities in Jewish law, even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the North African tradition. This is because it is different from a situation such as that which existed with the stork, where certain communities had a tradition that it was a kosher bird, while others had a tradition that it was a non-kosher bird. With locusts, there is no tradition in Ashkenaz against these types of locusts being kosher; Ashkenazim simply lack a tradition either way. Therefore, according to many authorities, such as the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, it is possible to rely upon the North African tradition regarding kosher varieties.

I have eaten locusts on several occasions. They do not require a special form of slaughter, and one usually kills them by dropping them into boiling water. They can be cooked in a variety of ways - lacking any particular culinary skills, I usually just fry them with oil and some spices. (My wife, however, insists that I do not use her kitchen utensils for the task; she is locust-intolerant.) It's not the taste that is distinctive, so much as the tactile experience of eating a bug - crunchy on the outside with a chewy center!

The rationale for certain locusts being kosher may be a practical matter - when your crops are wiped out by locusts, at least you're not left with nothing to eat! But in modern Western society, eating bugs simply grosses out most people. Many probably see the Torah's laws of kosher locusts as a relic from a primitive, barbaric era. Yet an article in the New Yorker magazine (August 2011) noted that in a world with a burgeoning population of billions, insects provide a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits: 
"From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘foodprint’; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef–friendly grasshoppers have three times as much – and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions." 
Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal-friendly approach? In fact, eating locusts doesn't even make you fleishig, so you could have a locust cheeseburger. I say, let's get back to our Biblical roots and tuck in. Bon appétit!


(See follow-up article, Adventures in Locust Hunting)

35 comments:

  1. At first, all I could think was "no comment".

    But it occurred to me, you might be on to something. If you can package ground locust in such a way that it resembles ground meat, you might have something you can market to the masses as they don't have to get over the sight of it.

    If the locusts come over the border, I hope you collect enough of them to make a burger so you can report on your experience and compare it with a normal beef burger, a turkey burger, etc.

    (Just curious, how hard is it to separate the chewy inside from the crunchy exoskeleton? I don't know if there's a future for crunchy burgers....)

    Now, I'll try to stop thinking about it in time for my own lunch.

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  2. "Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead . . ."

    There would be no impact, b/c Jews are not known for exploiting animals in factory farming, etc. That is just (I presume) your opinion.

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  3. I think not.

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  4. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions....

    You just had to add that in, didn't you? I was looking forwards to my first grasshopper, but now!!!

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  5. Natan, While you apparently have no aversion to eating kosher insects, most other people do. They would then be apparently violating a torah issur of 'lo teshaktzu et nafshoteichem' should they experiment with eating locusts. Ground up locusts incorporated into a veggie burger, may be another matter - if one wasn't aware of or squeamish about ingredients.

    In any case, I hope that your wish is unfulfilled and that the locust swarms bypass Israel.

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  6. I often wonder if the issur of בל תשקצו follows objective or subjective criteria.

    Clearly, since they're kosher, an object approach wouldn't come into play against these locusts.

    I am all for locust farming! It seems to me the aversion we have to eating insects is only cultural and thus if more of us eat them joyously over time it may become the new social norm!

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  7. How many calories in one? They actually don't look bad cooked.

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  8. There actually was a very intense Mahloket in Morocco between The Or ha Chaim and Rabbi Rafael Berdugo regarding correctness of the North African mesorah of Hagavim.

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  9. How could בל תשקצו apply to an explicitly kosher animal?

    A vegan might be repulsed by eating lamb but he wouldn't be excused eating Korban Pesach.

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  10. Well, looks like they crossed the border, hope the damage is minimal...http://news.yahoo.com/israel-alert-locusts-cross-egypt-183421157.html

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  11. Bleurgh!

    Maybe I could manage if they were coated in chocolate or something to disguise their bony exoskeleton.
    My mind may be tending towards rationalism but my gut is decidedly irrational on this issue...

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  12. http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/sobel/archives/bo63.htm

    Further on (Shemos 10:14), the Ramban quotes Rabbeinu Chananel in his commentary on the Torah: “From the time of Moshe’s prayer (that the locusts should leave Egypt) until today, locusts do not cause damage in all of Egypt. And if they come to Israel and cross into Egypt, they do not eat any of the produce there until this very day. And they say that this is a very well-known fact. Come and see, concerning the frogs, he (Moshe) said (Ibid. 8:5), ‘only in the river shall they remain,’ therefore the Altamtzach lingers there until today. But concerning the locusts it says (Ibid. 10:19), ‘Not a single locust remained within the entire border of Egypt.’ And on this it says (Tehillim 105:2), ‘Speak about all of His wonders.’”

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  13. If these beasts are really natural recyclers, maybe the Rabbi has just found another us for his favorite publications.

    Can we look forward to photos of locusts feasting on shredded copies of Yatid , or such ?

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  14. DF,

    In fact, many vegetarians, PETA, and anti-semites (l'havdil) do bring attention to factory farming by Jews, as most kosher meat in the U.S. is factory farmed. KOL Foods, however, makes a point of making sure their cattle, lamb and poultry are humanely raised and grazed.

    Many non-kosher Jews eat shrimp, lobster and crabs. I think it is a cultural/psychological barrier to eating locusts more than anything else. I remember being in junior high school a long time ago, when the 17-year locusts came out, and a history teacher set up a table with a frier in the cafeteria to cook and serve them to the more adventurous students.

    I would imagine that if one is starving, locusts would be quite welcome, but I suspect someone's going to have to do some culinary research to make it seem palatable.

    Thanks for this informative piece, Rav Slifkin.

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  15. Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal-friendly approach?

    This sounds like an anti-semitic rant. Jews are not known for that, and most farming nowadays has become industrialized, its not something particular to kosher animals. Do you really think more widespread consumption of locust would have a great positive impact? I assume you just needed something to finish your article with, but you could have done better.

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  16. Kosher? Possibly. But it is also possible to eat kosher and still be disgusting with the permission of the Torah מנבל ברשות התורה. Mrs. Slifkin is right on this one.

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  17. But then again slaughtering and eating meat may be even worse...

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  18. My wife, however, insists that I do not use her kitchen utensils for the task; she is locust-intolerant.

    smart lady.

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  19. You must be joking, mate!

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  20. Shulchan Aruch, Yorah Deah 87, clearly states that fish and grasshoppers can be consumed with dairy.

    This raises a few points:

    Sefardim had not yet adopted their scribal error forbidden fish mixed with dairy.

    The Bais Yosef had no problem with people eating grasshoppers.

    I miss fried chicken strips dipped in real ranch dressing. I would totally go for fried grasshoppers instead.... ;o)

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  21. I, for one, would love to try locusts. How do you catch them? It seems like it's not so easy, or at the very least that you would need good nets.

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  22. On the "yum" in your headline,

    Do locusts really taste that good?

    Do you ever find yourself saying, "You know, this ice cream's good, but what I could really use about now are a few grasshoppers"?

    It doesn't sound like something I'd want to eat, but it takes all types.

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  23. C'mon, you dont really like the crunch of locusts, your just trying to make a statement.
    Be more honest next time. Expound on why locusts are kosher today without having to fill your belly with them.

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  24. While eating insects seems disgusting to us, and the modern world (due to its Judeo-Christian values - many of which are derived from Torah) - many societies around the globe include insects as part of their diet.

    In Mexico, bags of cockroaches and grasshoppers of all varieties and flavours are sold on the streets. Down Under, the Indigenous people eat Whitchetty grubs and Honey ants.

    These ancient people ate insects. I find it interesting that G-D banned this ample food source from us, defining Jews separately from the other nations of the time in yet another way.

    I was wondering how you knew that this species of swarming locust was kosher. I had previously heard that the outline separating the thorax and abdomen (on the underside) roughly appear to spell "Chai" - "Life" in Hebrew. I'm not sure if this is true - could you confirm?

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  25. "Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. "

    They can still carry diseases that affect humans. In fact mosquitoes are probably responsible for more deaths than anything else ever.

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  26. Are only some parts tasty? Olr do you eat the whole thing, wings and head included?

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  27. dovid:
    "until today, locusts do not cause damage in all of Egypt"

    but see here, where I discuss how this hasn't historically been the case.

    kt,
    josh

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  28. I won't be eating them. Due to heavy pesticide spraying in Israel, they are no longer organic...

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  29. Well, the chefs agree with you Rabbi Slifkin!

    http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/routine-emergencies/when-god-gives-you-locusts-make-locust-stew.premium-1.507666

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  30. Solly said...

    "While eating insects seems disgusting to us, and the modern world (due to its Judeo-Christian values - many of which are derived from Torah) - many societies around the globe include insects as part of their diet."

    --- Some people around the world even today eat dogs and cats, and the news reported recent that plenty of people are still eating horses. Just because others do so does not make it right to copy them.

    "I find it interesting that G-D banned this ample food source from us, defining Jews separately from the other nations of the time in yet another way."

    --- We are supposed to be a "light to the nations," not the other way around. I'm sure you agree.

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  31. R. Slifkin,
    Thanks for this interesting perspective. I have just one caveat: I was also struck by that New Yorker article, but as I re-read it, I noticed that the author never asks the really important question: Do insects contain enough protein or calories to replace vertebrates as sources of meat? If they did, you would think that they would constitute a major component of the diet in at least a handful of societies somewhere in the world. Yet as far as I recall, all the societies that the author mentions in which insects are eaten treat them as a delicacy or a snack, not as a major source of protein.

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  32. Let me correct that last comment -- the author states that, "Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef," but if a grasshopper you'd have to eat dozens of grasshoppers to get just one ounce!

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  33. josh,

    thanks for the link. food for thought!

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  34. Locusts are a main food source in Vietnam, Thailand to name but two.

    Traditionally they were captured in the wild but more and more places in the Far East are growing them commercially and they are a cheap and sustainable source of protein.

    This morning my friend called by to show me a locust that was clinging to her bicycle. We live in Tel Aviv.

    Now that I have read all the kashrut discussions I am preparing to eat this one. Watch this space!!!

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