Tag Archives: Ituri Forest

“We Live In Little Houses Made of Beans”

We were discussing insects. What about eating insects?

When it comes up that I’ve lived in the Central African Rain Forest, certain questions often come up, and one of them is: “Did you eat bugs?”

Every one has seen those National Geographic specials where some natives somewhere are eating insects, and of course, Westerners who think they generally don’t eat insects are fascinated with the idea. However, Westerners eat a lot more insects than they think. You should really consider any processed food you eat that started out as a plant crop to be part insect. If what you are eating is made of any corn product, rice, wheat, etc. or pretty much anything else, consider how the foodstuff got from field to factory to your face. At no point did someone sit down and do what you do with the veggies you buy at the grocery store: take the time to clean them off and if you run into a bug, get rid of it. And, even when you do that to your own produce, you are not seeing some of the invertebrates that are just too small and too well hidden to see.

We had a more extreme than usual buggy food situation arise in the Ituri Forest one year. Our practice was to grow some food, and occasionally purchase food from a local market when one existed, but to mostly stay away from the food the local people grew, because we didn’t want to be draining away their resources. So, we would go to town every several weeks and purchase a number of long-term staples, including 20 kilo sacks of rice, beans, or other dry foods, a few gallons of palm oil, and to splurge, twenty boxes of pasta and dozens of tiny little cans of tomato paste which we would turn into feeble Italian food. The tomato paste cans always exploded on opening, so one had to learn to aim them into the pot first. But I digress.

Once you brought that food back there was no changing plans. If something bad happened to the sack of rice, there would be no rice for six weeks. We kept the food in a special food storage hut, and our cook, a locally hired woman who worked a few hours a day for us, would take very good care of it. All sorts of things can go wrong from leaks in the roof to vermin to mold or rot.

And one day something went wrong with the beans.

At first we noticed little black spots floating around in the cooked beans. A little later we noticed that among the beans, while cleaning them, there were these little tiny things that would fly away. Then we noticed that some of the beans had little holes bored into them. Eventually, we put two and two together and figured out that we had some sort of infestation. Some small beetle creature had taken up residence in our beans. Their larva would bore a hole into a bean and live there for a while, presumably eating each bean from the inside out. I’m pretty sure both the larvae and adults were doing the boring, but I can’t be sure. The way we handled this was to spread the beans out in the sun, and over time a bunch of the beetles would fly away. Then we’d wash off the beans as per usual and some of the beetles left behind, beetle corpses (of which there was an increasingly large number) and grubs would be washed away. But as each day passed, the number of beetles that would end up in the cooked beans went up and up and up, and the efficacy of getting rid of the beetles was obviated by their ubiquity. So we stopped laying the beans out in the sun. At that point we stopped eating “cooked beans” and started eating “cooked beetles and beans” or, for short “B&B”.

And eventually we discovered that this was not all that uncommon. If you want beans in that habitat, you’re gonna get beetles too. Its just that this particular batch of Beetles and Beans was farther along than usual. Eventually we had to speed up the rate at which we consumed the beans so that there would be some left for us to eat! And, as I recall, the next batch of beans had hardly any beetles in it.

Well, I’m sorry to report that you do something like this every day when you eat stuff made out of pretty much any plant, but probably to a lesser degree. When products are made in factories in the US, some sort of test is applied to the powder or juice or whatever the corn or beans or wheat is turned into, to see how much invertebrate (mainly insect) matter is in there. I assume that batches with “too much” are mixed with batches of “not much” to make batches of corn meal, wheat flour, etc. that have under the regulated maximum amount of insect matter. Right?

In any event, there is nothing wrong with eating most insects, especially those that eat the foods we eat. Chances are they are low in toxins, and they are loaded with amino acids and other protein related molecules! Here as well as the Ituri, people eat insects all the time in this manner.

But of course, that is not what people are really asking me. They want to know if I’ve ever eaten insects as part of the cuisine. On purpose.

Yes, of course I have…

No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

I knew a couple who had spent a lot of time in the Congo in the 1950s. He was doing primatology, and she was the wife of the primatologist. And when she spoke of the Congo or Uganda, where they spent most of the time, she always said “The thing about Africa is that there’s no place to sit down.” Continue reading No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)