Peter Kuper: Oaxaca Journal Redux

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday May 18, 2022

Here in Oaxaca, Mexico they say to foreigners— “If you eat the chapulinas (grasshoppers) you will always return.” This magic formula has certainly held true for me– since I downed a few back in 2006, I’ve been returning annually. On this latest visit—a three-month stay– I’ve decided to get a booster dose while expanding my palate to include ants, caterpillars, and several other arthropods.

Fried to the consistency of well-cooked onion rings, then seasoned, they were crispy, tangy and delicious. They have the same protein as a steak and compared to cows, leave a carbon footprint thesize of their tiny feet. 

Entomophagy –the eating of insects– isn’t unusual. Two billion people around the world regularly include them in their diets. We in the West just decided they were disgusting at some point in our history. It wasn’t that long ago that we also thought eating raw salmon was detestable and lobsters were strictly for the lower classes. That must have been before the introduction of sushi and butter.

This exploration fits nicely into a project I’ve been researching and developing as a graphic novel titled INterSECTS. I began writing and drawing it in 2020 during a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library (an excerpt from the book is being exhibited at the NYPL through Aug 13th 2022). It’s a visual investigation into the history of insects, the people who have studied them and the millions of ways homo sapiens and arthropods intersect.

Oaxaca is a perfect environment to expand my knowledge, especially for my chapter on the cochineal bug. Found on Nopal cactus, the cochineal produces a protein that, when crushed, creates a brilliant red dye. Though its use by indigenous people dates back millennium, it became a gold mine for the Spanish conquistadors beginning in the 1500s. Its export value was only surpassed by silver and the Spanish cornered the market by keeping the source of the dyestuff a secret for more than 250 years. 

The pigment from cochineal found its way into oil paintings by Rembrandt, Titian and Van Gogh. It colored the British Red Coats; the first U.S. flag; was prized by European royals; and fought over by pirates. For a time, Oaxaca had a monopoly on cochineal and this helped build the magnificent city that it remains to this day.

If you are horrified by the very idea of insects, and especially by the prospect of eating them, you might first take a look at the ingredients of your strawberry yogurt, lipstick or scarlet specialty cocktail. ‘Carmine’ is the name listed on products that use cochineal. Your power-bar is likely to include cricket flour and the shine on apples and M+M’s is thanks to the lac beetle. 

So, bon appetite!

Peter Kuper has a newly discovered species of bee was named after him (S. kuperi) by renowned entomologist, Michael S. Engel. His illustrations and comics have appeared in newspapers, magazines and books around the world and he teaches at Harvard.  

Kuper's new exhibition INterSECTS is currently on display at the New York Public Library through August 13th 2022 and there will be a live presentation at 6:30 pm on May 25th. Free tickets and streaming available here