Researcher-artists and cultural workers Beatriz Paz Jiménez and Zoë Heyn-Jones work together as Dupla Molcajete: dupla meaning duo in Spanish, and molcajete (mohl-cah-HEH-tay) referring to the Mexican mortar. From the Nahuatl word molcaxitl (molli = sauce and caxitl = cup or bowl), this prehispanic utensil, usually made from volcanic stone or clay, is used to grind spices and other ingredients, and often to make sauces that are served directly in the mortar itself.
The molcajete is a strong and beautiful tool, both ancient and contemporary, made from both the earth and from human labour. It is an everyday domestic artifact, feminized and containing within it great strength and power. It is both general (there are many versions of the mortar and pestle around the world and throughout history) and specific (the molcajete’s rock and clay, and its form, are specific to Mexico). Most importantly, it is collaborative: the molcajete and the tejolote (pestle) working together, each one rendered infinitely more useful and powerful through contact with the other.
As Dupla Molcajete, Paz Jiménez and Heyn-Jones have an emergent collaborative practice that creates spaces for experimentation at the nexus of art, food, and culture from Mesoamerican perspectives. Dupla Molcajete works to centre food justice and sustainability, leveraging the resources of art and university spaces to engage with wider communities. They centre ancestral knowledge and (perma)cultural practices between Mexico and Canada—and across the hemisphere—through cooking, eating, talking, writing, curating, publishing, collaging, and making plant-based photochemical images, among other actions.
What follows is a longform conversation between Paz Jiménez and Heyn-Jones as they discuss Entomofagia: Ancestral and Future Foods. In Dupla Molcajete’s nascent research-creation project they explore edible insects as a potential solution for food security and climate action. In Mexico, where they live and work, eating insects is common; in fact, Mexico has the widest variety of edible insects in the world. However, if the eating of insects is to become widespread—and therefore contribute significantly to reducing food insecurity and greenhouse gas emissions, among other benefits—the ‘disgust factor’ (primarily in North America, Europe and the UK) must be overcome.
Expanding the acceptance of entomophagy can combat racism and white supremacy through tongues and guts, and can contribute to a greater recognition of the crucial ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples worldwide. The primary goal of the project is to explore how art practice(s) can contribute to a wider acceptance of entomophagy. We discuss eating insects at the intersection of social practices in contemporary art, and intercultural collaboration.
in the face of many global crises, entomophagy offers us many intersectional answers that can contribute to the construction of a culture of holistic wellbeing that we are sorely lacking.
Zoë Heyn-Jones: Hi! I have the chapulines that you gave me to start our conversation, so, I’ll have one and I’ll put them here to give the conversation that kind of energy!
Beatriz Paz Jiménez: Grasshoppers, yeah, so tasty! Had you eaten insects before coming to Mexico?
ZHJ: No, I never had. I remember seeing edible insects in Canada for the first time when I was maybe in high school or in middle school, as kind of a novelty item. I saw lollipops that had a scorpion inside––it was a cool gift item, but definitely not something that people would have eaten for sustenance or incorporated into their daily lives in any way.
I wondered if Indigenous nations in so-called Canada eat insects currently or ate insects in the past? I did a bit of research and it seems that Mi’kmaq people on the east coast of Canada did eat ants, but usually only to avoid starvation in difficult times, apparently. Mi’kmaq people were said to have consumed grasshoppers, cooking them in fat. Also, cicadas, but they only emerge every seventeen years, apparently. I’m very interested in pursuing further research on the connections with cultural tastes, the land, to site specificity, and sustainability. But tell me, why is entomophagy such a compelling subject for artistic research for you?
BPJ: I grew up with stories of the Aztecs as supernatural beings capable of great feats. However, as a child I was doubtful because I was also told that the Indigenous people I saw on the street begging for alms were their descendants. Now, I understand that as mestizos, we all are. But as a child I wondered why, if their ancestors had been so strong, they seemed so weak? No one told me that our ancestors ate insects, or that they had developed agricultural technologies that ensured incredibly resilient DNA―nor that people begging for alms was the result of a colonial system of oppression that systematically displaced them from their territories and cultures. This I came to understand through multiple paths of violence I have witnessed and experienced.
This touches part of my family history: I am the granddaughter of an Indigenous child who lost her culture, her language and her family. She was a runaway kid that had to adapt to a very different world in order to prevent gender-based violence. She kept two things from her community: her childhood memories and her cooking.
Like all young people, I had to leave the world of imagination and play to enter the world of adulthood. For my Mexican generation, this aging process had the Narco War as its backdrop: the struggles for avocados and blackberries, the struggles against transgenic corn, the disappearance of peasants and students, the mass graves, the economic oppression in the aftermath of NAFTA and the paramilitarization of the State. The psychological weight of all of this was kept deep inside of me until I found two forms of healing: one was art, and the other was the world of fermented foods, quelites, and insects. Taking care of the little beings was my way to nourish my heart while keeping my body healthy. I believe that, in the face of many global crises, entomophagy offers us many intersectional answers that can contribute to the construction of a culture of holistic wellbeing that we are sorely lacking.
In the course “Food Cosmogonies” facilitated by The Gramounce, artist and organizer Nora Silva said, “To talk about political systems is to talk about food systems.” For you, what is it specifically about art that makes it such a fruitful, compelling methodology with which to explore eating insects?
The discourse around edible insects as the ‘future of food’ is so prevalent and strong―but so is the simultaneous temporality of insects having been eaten since time immemorial for so many cultures around the world
ZHJ: I’m really interested in this idea of the artist-researcher as a bridge between communities or as a translator of knowledge, someone who might act as a conduit between communities to facilitate an interchange of knowledge between them―but also somehow translates that knowledge to other publics.
To really create a cultural shift around entomophagy, we need to engage not just diners, not just environmentalists, but people in general. In order to feed the world in the near future, we need to utilize tools from the arts to push for a cultural shift towards eating insects for protein.
It's a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary challenge to normalize edible insects, and we need to work with universities, museums, and other institutions, as well as legislators and policy makers. The arts can have an important role in culturally integrating entomophagy into our society.
Artistic research is particularly good at exploring multiple temporalities at once, something that I find very compelling about entomophagy. The discourse around edible insects as the ‘future of food’ is so prevalent and strong―but so is the simultaneous temporality of insects having been eaten since time immemorial for so many cultures around the world. I am interested in the idea of looking to the distant ancestral past as well as looking to the present and to the speculative future―I feel like art practices can allow these multiple temporalities to coexist.
BPJ: Can you tell me about some of the particular practices you are thinking about with relation to Entomofagia: Ancestral and Future Foods?
ZHJ: I'm very interested in social practices in art, and forms of performance, live art, or daily practice. The idea of doing something ‘as’ art; what it means to bracket something off from the rest of your life as art and contextualize it in that way. It gives it a different meaning or a different valence―and in that way it can be a venue for changing cultures and shifting attitudes.
I’m thinking of Natalie Loveless’ talk “Why Research-Creation?” in which she talked about Fluxus instructional pieces and event scores. She described Alison Knowles’ Make a Salad (1962) a proposition or instruction which was first ‘performed’ at London’s ICA Gallery in 1962 in which Knowles made a huge salad and served it to the audience, making strange something that is otherwise familiar (and maybe also pointing to the gendered labour which is often at the heart of food preparation and service).
Maybe we could think of Entomofagia: Ancestral and Future Foods as existing as a simple instruction piece: “eat some grasshoppers” or something similar, familiarizing something that's otherwise strange, which eating insects would be in certain cultures, right?
I know that lately you've been immersing yourself in research on insects in mythology. What are some of the most interesting links that you have found in your research between insects, edible or otherwise, and Mesoamerican mythology?
BPJ: Mesoamerican mythology can be read as a poetic way to understand the rhythms of nature and how to calendarize and ritualize them. A good example is the migration of butterflies that arrive to the Pacific coast in the season around Día de Muertos, the most famous Mexican celebration. Some communities believe that butterflies are the transporters of souls.When they see the butterflies, they are considered to be their dead loved ones coming back home to share the celebration together.
One of the foundation myths I love is how the gods tried to create humanity from sacred bones, but failed four consecutive times until the bones were taken to the underworld. The god Quetzalcóatl refused the miscarriage and decided to try one more time. He traveled for years, undertaking terrible trials until he reached the core of the underworld. When he asked Mictlantecuhtli (the god of the underworld) to give him back the bones, Mictlantecuhtli gave him his conch shell and told him he had to blow it in the four directions of the world. As the conch shell did not have a hole, Quetzalcoatl asked the worms for help to pierce it, and then the bees entered it and made it sound with the buzz of their flight. The new men, created by Quetzalcóatl, were made possible by the music of the underworld played by insects.
In the Mesoamerican cultures, insects were food, medicine, divine entities, spirits, and more. Nowadays it seems that there is an increasing discourse worldwide around insects as the food of the future. What do you think about this emergent discourse?
ZHJ: There is a vast and ever-increasing landscape of start-ups and producers of edible insects in what is considered the global north. The Food and Agriculture Organization's report from 2013 describes in great detail how insects can produce so much more protein while using exponentially less water, less land, and less energy than it takes to produce livestock for both human food and for feeding animals. According to this report, through widespread global adoption of eating insects we would be able to feed the nine-plus billion people that are estimated to be living on the planet by 2050.
It makes a lot of sense to try to solve the specific problem of animal protein. We know how industrial livestock production is detrimental in so many ways. But eating meat seems to be on the rise: as more so-called developing nations become richer, their populations seem to be eating more meat.
Having a global shift to insect consumption for protein should be widely considered―but not at the expense of forgetting about food waste: over one-third of all the food that is produced in the world is wasted somewhere along the chain of producers, transportation, retail, and in the home. It’s a problem of allocation of resources. There are enough resources on the planet to feed everyone if they were allocated more fairly and responsibly.
On the other hand, we have to be very careful before jumping on the bandwagon that celebrates edible insects as some kind of magic-bullet solution to hunger or to the problem of food insecurity or we risk replicating industrial agricultural methods with insect farms.
In the context of Mexico, what can we learn from Indigenous communities about how to incorporate insects into our diets in a truly sustainable manner?
BJP: Indigenous peoples are not governed by the system of exclusionary duality. That is to say, they do not see themselves as separate from nature. For them, humans are part of ‘nature,’ not separate from it. That is of radical importance as we create gastronomic material culture. Therefore, we hold a responsibility to future generations, not only of human beings but of other species as well.
The insect harvesters that inherited the Mesoamerican tradition recognize the right season to harvest, and the least invasive ways to do it. However, the rising demand for edible insects is putting these relations at risk by not giving the insect communities enough time to reproduce. This malpractice can put an end to ancestral lines of insect species and Indigenous ways of living. If we begin to farm native insects, we have to incorporate the Indigenous people and their knowledge in collective decision-making, alongside other stakeholders―scientists, CEOs, researchers, academics, lawyers, politicians, chefs, cooks, and consumers. To enforce the conservation of insects it is important to learn about the conditions where insects grow, their habitats, temperatures, cycles of life, and the cuisines that have proven to use them in the best possible ways. That means, by eating insects we are enhancing a dialogue amongst different epistemological communities and we are expanding cultural diversity.
So, maybe we won’t have access to the same insects all year round, but if we learn more about edible insects and how to properly harvest them and take care of their habitats (hence facilitating better conditions for mass reproduction) we could have enough protein for everybody. Parallel to the question of industrial farming arises the question how do we do this work in a way that is not culturally extractive and that doesn't replicate colonial models of dispossession, right?
ZHJ: Yes! That is very important with regards to scaling up edible insect consumption worldwide, and engaging Indigenous nations in a way that is respectful and not extractive of their knowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Julie Lesnik's work, and the question of why certain cultures do not eat insects, while others have since time immemorial? For her, it is due to the convergence of nature and nurture: environmental reasons (i.e. in northern regions they wouldn't have been accessible for most of the year) in addition to the fact that the ‘yuck factor’ is obviously a cultural construction. The disgust that many Europeans and their settler descendants have with the idea of eating insects can be traced back to the records that colonizers were sending back to Europe regarding what the Indigenous peoples of the Americas were eating. Lesnik highlights a quote from a letter by Diego Alvarez Chanca, who was a companion of Columbus' on his second voyage in 1493, when he describes that “They eat all the snakes and lizards and spiders and worms that they find upon the ground so that, to my fancy, their bestiality is greater than any beast upon the face of the earth.”
When you incorporated that quote into our recent proposal, that really stuck with me. This idea of how eating all of these creatures that were different than what Europeans were eating was immediately and necessarily equated with bestiality. That kind of lens to look at other cultures has continued to this day, it seems to be incredibly hard to break free of this culturally-mandated disgust that comes from the earliest days of colonization and the inability to look at any other culture as being equally valid as European culture. And the way it manifests today is "Ew, gross! Bugs are gross, we don't eat them!”
Regarding Indigenous knowledge, how do we as artists-researchers engage with this topic in terms of collaboration with Indigenous communities here in Mexico? How do you think we can make sure we do it in a non-extractive way?
BPJ: When we eat an insect, we are also eating a territory that has been cared for and loved by a community for generations. Building a relationship of trust and mutual recognition requires acknowledging that territory and systemic hierarchies displayed while leaving behind paternalistic models that led to their dispossession and anonymity.
The social work jargon of ‘helping a community’ sometimes only results in a lack of accountability. That is not the type of social engagement that will lead to intersectional and radical change. I’ve seen a lot of people in active work with Indigenous communities romanticizing their ways of living, giving them money as alms, taking selfies in a misery porn style, gifting them culturally inappropriate food, promoting exoticization and generally appropriating their cultures. To my surprise, many times in very naïve ways.
Stepping out of the hierarchical roles requires establishing a basis of collaboration under mutual agreement, listening actively, asking openly what the community needs are before providing any one-sided solution based on suppositions. Successful practices from allies are on the lines of solidarity and mutual aid: collective campaigns, transparent fundraising, alternative economies, free media, permaculture, legal support. We should aim for this level of engagement, not to speak in their name, but to stand by their side while facilitating means for communication on their terms. On the other hand, many communities have been so dispossessed that they don’t hold on to their traditional knowledge. This creates enormous pain that we can't even imagine. In any case, the tools of restorative justice are a must, from my perspective.
Food is not inherently racist, ideas are. People become racist by swallowing these ideas.
ZHJ: We want to contribute to shifting culture in order to make edible insects not only palatable but a delicious and desirable foodsource. What do you think is necessary for a worldwide cultural shift to take place?
BPJ: If we analyze the circumstances under which the world population of the future will be concentrated in large cities and the food of the future is compromised for many, we will discover a multifactorial network, with climate change as a general connector. As we were talking about with Yasmine Ostendorf, founder of the Green Art Lab Alliance, climate change is based upon many other injustices such as racism, gender-based violence, extractivism, colonialism, speciesism, capitalism. This permeates the legitimation systems of mainstream culture, including gastronomy.
If we alter one or several of these nodes, we will transform the whole scheme. Food is not inherently racist, ideas are. People become racist by swallowing these ideas. Entomophagy is a means not an end. What if we think of entomophagy as a cultural shift towards the ideal outcome of an antiracist, anticolonial, antiextractive society?
Something as little as an insect could be the key to land defense and cultural sovereignty from a decolonial perspective. Insect reform in powerful sectors of industry can slow climate change due the advantages you previously mentioned. Insects can also be used as biofuels and microplastic disintegrators. On the other side of the spectrum, something as little as an insect, if extinct, can create a chain effect that mirrors our own potential extinction; a looming risk in the face of the current massive death of pollinators.
It would be helpful to stop romanticizing the idea of having particular foods, and only those, for congeniality and gathering. The junk food that we elevate to the pedestal of “comfort food” is making us and our environment ill. We don’t have to abandon our culinary traditions, but to expand them and let them connect us to people with different worldviews. We all need sustainable food. As in any revolution, we need to believe that every single action matters.