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The Locusts Are Coming! Yum!
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)