You pretty quickly get over the squick. At least, I did. The first moments of Andreas Johnsen’s globetrotting, grub-chewing, thorax-filleting documentary Bugs promise a feast for the squeamish: A pair of chefs from Denmark’s Nordic Food Lab prep a meal featuring buffalo worms and locusts, some of it cooked in fly larva fat. It’s almost Temple of Doom stuff, the kind of thing Steven Spielberg loved to make Kate Capshaw scream at.
“Do you have to warn everyone before they eat this that it’s not legally considered food?” one chef asks. The point of the meal — and one of the points of the film — is that insects are considered food in much of the world, and that to achieve anything like sustainability in our own food-sourcing, we should probably consider munching on some crawlies. (They’re everywhere, after all — we’ve just organized our lives so that we don’t have to look at them.) To that end, the chefs jaunt off around the globe, hunting down local bug-eating traditions, cooking plump termite queens and spindly delicacies and then describing them for us. Pale Australian grubs taste, we’re told, like macadamia nuts, like roasted red peppers. In Kenya, the chefs’ first termite queen gets splattered as they attempt to dig her out of a towering mud mound, a yolky tragedy one chef compares to accidentally running over a foie gras duck. A local boy presents them with a backup. Its pulsing finger-length egg sac looks, were told, “like God’s handmade sausage.”
Cooked up, these meals look marvelous, as does the honey our eager chefs eat right out of a buried honeycomb and the ant larvae and nopales tacos they enjoy in Mexico. But the Italian cheeses seeded with fly larvae and then filled with wriggling white worms — well, not so much. Still, on these adventures, the chefs bubble over with bonhomie, relishing the people they meet and the bugs that they eat. Bugs is such cheery fun in these passages that it’s easy to overlook that plucking away a termite colony’s queen for a single-serving treat is pretty much the opposite of “sustainability.”
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Our heroes’ enthusiasm ebbs when it comes to examining how insects might worm their way into western diets. That meal they prep in the first scenes, we later learn, is at a reasonably large bug farm, one whose stock, we’re told, somehow just isn’t as flavorful as bugs in the wild. That’s the funniest thing in the movie, the earnest — and possibly true — belief that digging your own grubs from the earth itself results in a richer and more pure experience, like owning music on vinyl. There’s more laughs when the chefs attend a conference put on by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization; there, they’re disheartened to learn that industrial food companies see bugs as a business. Text at the film’s opening suggests that we’ll probably all be eating them eventually, as the population booms, but these chefs — both dreamers, both grub gourmands — want us eating what we turn up under our rocks, not whatever cheap-o ant-leg paste Pepsi eventually sources to replace Fritos’ corn flour. It’s gently comic, a touch naive and somewhat moving: These idealists are ready to fight to keep creepy-crawlies farm to table.