The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food

Excerpted from Chapter 1: Crispy (footnotes omitted), from The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food by John S. Allen, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


The single word “crispy” sells more food than a barrage of adjectives describing the ingredients or cooking techniques. There is something innately appealing about crispy food.

— Mario Batali, The Babbo Cookbook (Random House, 2002)

We have all at one time or another been drawn to the allure of the crispy. Mario Batali runs high -end restaurants featuring wonderful (and often expensive) reimaginings of regional Italian dishes. At restaurants of this kind, the word crispy may be a bit too blunt to appear in menu item titles, but it can always be casually mentioned by the server when describing a dish or reciting the specials of the day. We do not go to fast-food restaurants for a personalized, subtle, or sublime dining experience, so there is little cause for restraint in these establishments; crispy is freely used as an inducement to buy. When in the early 1970s Kentucky Fried Chicken added a new chicken preparation to their menu, they dubbed it “Extra Crispy.” This bit of marketing genius accomplished two things: first, it made it clear that the chicken was not just crispy but extra crispy; second, it necessarily reinforced the idea that the “Original Recipe” chicken was itself crispy (any alternative to crispy being unacceptable).

So why do we humans like crispy? The appeal of crispy food appears, like our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to be self-evident. Everybody seems to enjoy crispy food. In support of this notion is the fact that crispy foods are very adept at crossing culinary cultural boundaries. A cultural anthropologist colleague of mine used to lament that the evening plane from New Zealand to Samoa always smelled of Kentucky Fried Chicken, as the Samoan passengers made sure to stock up for their families and friends on the way to the airport. Or consider the potato. It did well enough in spreading from the New World to the Old in the preindustrial era, but with the technology that made possible the large-scale production and distribution of crispier forms of the root vegetable (primarily chips and frozen french fries), the potato “came into its own,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This organization saw fit to celebrate 2008 as the Year of the Potato. Even in nations where the potato has been supplanted as a staple crop, its availability in crisp and convenient forms helps maintain its overall popularity.

Crispy seems to have the power to penetrate even the most formidable of cultural barriers. For much of its history, Japan deliberately isolated itself from foreign influences; its cuisine is often seen to be the embodiment of this literally and figuratively insular culture. Yet the well-known crispy aspects of classic Japanese cuisine are all adapted from other cultures. Batter-fried tempura was either invented or imported by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who were allowed into the country until Japan severely limited all contact with the outside world beginning in the 1630s. The breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet called tonkatsu is a Japanese adaptation of the schnitzel found in Austria, Germany, and other European countries. Deep frying using only flour or cornstarch as a coating is referred to as kara-age, a term that originally meant “Chinese frying” in Japanese. So when you go to a Japanese restaurant and enjoy your very delicious kara-age chicken wings, tonkatsu, and vegetable tempura, you can at least be certain that your California sushi roll appetizer is traditionally Japanese.

Some scientists, such as evolutionary psychologists and bio-cultural anthropologists, become very excited when they see a behavioral or cognitive pattern that seems to transcend cultural boundaries. Quite reasonably, they hypothesize that the pattern may have some underlying biological and evolutionary basis and that it is not solely the product of local environmental or cultural influences. In other words, some patterns and practices appear in different and diverse cultures with such frequency that it is unlikely to be due to convergence or borrowing from another culture. The appeal of crispy appears to be one of these phenomena. The crispy foods themselves may be transmitted from one culture to another, but many cultures seems to be preadapted to receive them with enthusiasm.

Batali’s statement at the opening of the chapter frames the hypothesis that crispy foods are innately appealing to humans. At first glance, this seems to be quite reasonable. But innate is a strong word—even a fighting word in some social science circles. Like instinctual, it conveys the sense that the human brain is hardwired to produce a certain behavior or preference under almost any environmental circumstances. There is broad acceptance that humans possess a language instinct, but can a case be made for an instinct for crispy? Is crispy as deeply rooted in our evolutionary past as language, and is it as culturally transcendent? Words such as innate and instinctual may be too strong for the appeal of crispy, or maybe we need to adopt a somewhat softer perspective about what these words mean in the context of human behavior and cognition. I look at crispy here as an exemplar of my biocultural approach to the human diet and eating behavior in general. If we want to understand why we like crispy, then we need to understand how we think crispy.

Sources of Crispy: Insects

Where does crispy come from? If we look at the natural world, at foods consumed in their most unprocessed form, sources of crispy are abundant but not terribly appealing, especially to those accustomed to a contemporary Western diet. Insects are probably the crispiest of animal foods thanks to their hard exoskeleton, which is made of a polysaccharide called chitin (though of course insects can also be eaten in their earlier, squishier stages of development, such as grubs).

Insects can be good sources of fat and protein, and throughout the world insects appear as both bit and featured players in human diets. Although Western observers tend to view insects as either a food of desperation or an effete delicacy, the reality in many traditional cuisines is something in between: they are available, so they are eaten. And in many cases, when adult insects with a mature exoskeleton are eaten, they are roasted, grilled, or fried to an extra-crispy state. Here is a nice recipe for grasshoppers from the tribal peoples of Nagaland in far northeastern India:

Grasshoppers are usually collected after the harvest of the paddy. The wings and stomach of the insect are removed, washed with clean water and then fried in vegetable oil with ingredients like ginger, garlic, chili, salt, onion, fermented bamboo shoot, etc. Water is usually not added and it is cooked dry.

That does not sound too bad. Crispy grasshoppers prepared in this fashion are readily available in the markets of Nagaland and in other traditional and not-so-traditional markets throughout the world.

Even to Western observers, the prospect of a nice crispy fried insect is no doubt more attractive than that of a bug not prepared to maximize its crunchiness. The widespread consumption of insects may indeed support the idea that crispy has an innate appeal. But why do Westerners so definitively reject insects as food? Anthropologist Marvin Harris considered this issue at some length. He argued that Europeans and Americans regard insects as “dirty and loathsome” because they do not eat them, not the other way around. If insects have no value as food, then their roles as disease carriers and despoilers of food, as invasive pests, come to dominate perception of them. But why do insects have no value as food in some cultures? Harris suggested that if there are adequate quantities of large vertebrates combined with an absence of reasonable-sized swarming insects, then foraging strategies will not include insects. In other words, we will take meat over bugs any day. These conditions are met in the northern latitudes where traditional Western diets originated. However, good-sized nutritious insects were and are available seasonally in these regions, and other cuisines that originated in these same climates, such as those of the native North Americans, traditionally made use of both large vertebrates and insects. Harris argued that the Euro-American perspective represented an optimal solution to a specific set of environmental conditions. Although Harris’s idea is interesting, it may have been an overly rational explanation for why Westerners reject insects as food. As we will see, food choices at both the individual and cultural levels can be influenced by a wide range of factors, and what is and isn’t considered to be food is one of the fundamental markers of cultural identity.

Humans are primates, members of the order of mammals that also includes all monkeys and apes and a curious collection of small-bodied forms known as prosimians (lemurs, tarsiers, bush babies, and so on). A quick survey of the diets of primates (see Chapter 2) reveals that many of them eat bugs quite enthusiastically. In fact, the original primates living some 50 million years ago may have been predominantly insect-eaters. Given this insectivorous primate heritage and the fact that the practice of eating insects is quite widespread among humans, there is likely no basis for an innate aversion to eating insects—quite the opposite, in fact. Do we as a species eat insects because many of them are crispy? Or do we like crispy foods because crispy insects were a food of choice among our ancestors? The latter would suggest that the appeal of crispy foods is ancient and cognitively deep-seated. Perhaps there is a connection between crickets and extra-crispy fried chicken, beyond the occasional unwanted visitor to the deep fryer.

John S. Allen is Research Scientist, Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.