Insect Eaters

From almost every part of the inhabited globe instances and examples can be brought of the eating of insects, both in ancient and modern times, by people of every colour and nation. If I bring forward examples from ancient times, or from among those nations, in modern times, which are called uncivilized, I foresee that I shall be met with the argument, "Why should we imitate these uncivilized races?" But upon examination it will be found that, though uncivilized, most of these peoples are more particular as to the fitness of their food than we are, and look on us with far greater horror for using, as food, the unclean pig or the raw oyster, than we do upon them for relishing a properly cooked dish of clean-feeding locusts or palm-grubs. If we are to imitate in nothing these savage races, how is it that from their example we cultivate the priceless Peruvian bark or quinine; that we, rich and poor alike, feed daily on the imported potato; that we delight in curry; and that our men, each at first struggling against his natural aversion and sickness, accustom themselves by force of will to the soothing influence of the noxious weed, tobacco?

Beginning with the earliest rimes, one can produce examples of insect-eating at every period down to our own age. Speaking to the people of Israel, at Lev. xi. 22, Moses directly encourages them to eat clean-feeding insects: "These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind." Again, John the Baptist is recorded to have lived in the desert upon locusts and wild honey. Some critics, however, apparently considering locusts unnatural food, and ignorant of how they are relished in the East, have gone out of their way to produce long arguments to prove that the word which has been translated "locusts" ought to have been rendered as the name of a species of cassia-pod. This is not so. Almost every traveller of note has given us an account of how the Eastern nations enjoy these insects. Pliny records the fact that in his day they were much eaten by the Parthians. Herodotus describes the mode adopted by the Nasamones of powdering locusts for the purpose of baking them into cakes.

The Hottentots, according to Sparrman, welcome the locusts as a godsend, although the whole country is devastated, for it is literally a case of the biter bit; and these locust-eaters grow round and fat from the incredible quantities they devour of their nutritious and appetizing persecutors. Cooked in many and various ways, locusts are eaten in the Crimea, Arabia, Persia, Madagascar, Africa, and India. Sometimes they are merely fried, their legs and wings plucked off, and the bodies eaten, flavoured with pepper and salt. At others they are powdered and baked into cakes; or, again, they are boiled, turning red, like lobsters, in the process. In India, like every other article of food, they are curried. (It has been cleverly suggested by Simmonds, in his "Curiosities of Food," that their very name, Gryllus, is in itself an invitation to cook them.) In Arabia, Persia, and parts of Africa there are regular locust shops where they are exposed for sale; and among the Moors they are highly valued, appearing in the menu at the best tables. Their method of cooking is to pluck off the head, wings, and legs, boil for half an hour, flavour with pepper and salt, and fry in butter. As I can myself bear witness, of which more hereafter, this recipe applied to our English grasshoppers renders that despised insect a truly tasty morsel. From the time of Homer, the Cicadae formed the. theme of every Greek poet, in regard to both tunefulness and delicate flavour. Aristotle tells us that the most polished of the Greeks enjoyed them, considering the pupae, or chrysalids, the greatest tid-bits, and after them the females heavy with their burden of eggs. Why this taste should have died out in modern Greece one cannot tell, for it is much more wholesome than many which have been assiduously perpetuated. Cicadae are eaten at the present day by the American Indians and by the natives of Australia.

According to Pliny, the Roman epicures were in the habit of fattening for the table the larvae of the Cossus, with flour and wine. It is somewhat doubtful as to the exact identity of the insect represented by the word Cossus; but it was probably the large grub of the Stag Beetle {Lucanus cervins) or a large Longicorn Beetle {Prionus corioranus). The epicure of Rome was most dainty and discriminating in his food. Why, then, should we turn up our noses at what he considered as a great delicacy?

Aelian tells us that in his time an Indian king served up, for his Greek guests, as dessert, a dish of roasted grubs, extracted from some tree or plant, which were considered by the natives a great treat. There is very little doubt that these were the larvae of the palm weevil (Calandra palmarum), huge grubs as large as a man's thumb, which are, at the present day, extracted from the palm trees and eaten with great relish by the negroes in the West Indies under the name of Grugru. Kirby in his "Entomology" says that a certain Sir John La Forey, who was somewhat an epicure, was extremely partial to this grub when properly cooked.

The family of Longicorn Beetles affords a rich store of luscious larvae, which are sought and eaten by the inhabitants of most countries where they are to be found in any abundance. As I mentioned before, it is considered by some to have been a member of this family {Prionus corioranus) that was fed up by the Romans for the table with all the care that is nowadays bestowed upon a prize pig. One of this tribe is also mentioned by Madame Merian as being eaten by both the native and white inhabitants of Surinam, who serve them up nicely roasted after being emptied and washed. In St. Pierre's voyages also, this, or some similar insect, is mentioned, under the name of the Moutac grub, as being eaten by whites and natives alike. In Java there is a species of Cockchafer (Melolontha hypoleuca) to which Wiedemann has drawn attention, as forming food for the inhabitants. The last instance from among the Coleoptera I will bring forward is the well-known meal worm, the larvae of a small beetle (Tenebrio), which Turkish women eat in large quantities for the purpose of acquiring that plumpness of form their lords so much admire. The Chinese, making use of "the worm, a thing that crept on the bare earth, then wrought a tomb and slept" as food, eat the chrysalids of the silkworms after the silk has been wound from off the cocoons. They fry them in butter or lard, add yolk of eggs, and season with pepper, salt, and vinegar. A certain Mr. Favand, a Chinese missionary, says that he found this food refreshing and strengthening. Dr. Darwin, also, in his "Phytologia," mentions this dish, and says that a white earth grub and the larvae- of the sphinx moths are also eaten, which latter he tried, and found to be delicious. The Hottentots eat caterpillars, both cooked and raw, collecting and carrying them in large calabashes to their homes, where they fry them in iron pots over a gentle fire, stirring them about the while. They eat them, cooked thus, in handfuls, without any flavouring or sauce. A traveller who on several occasions tried this dish, tells us that he thought it delicate, nourishing, and wholesome, resembling in taste sugared cream or sweet almond paste.

Passing now from the strictly insect world, I come to some common land mollusks, which have formed, and indeed form at the present time, food for many nations as cultivated as ourselves, but which we, strong in insular prejudice, still refuse. Pliny tells us how snails were appreciated in Ancient Rome, and were cultivated and fed to increase their number and size for the table. It is almost too well known to need mention, that in most parts of Europe at the present time snails are extensively eaten and enjoyed. No precedent ought, surely, to be needed for the adoption of snails as food, when we copy and justly appreciate in almost every other particular the cookery of France. Still, if English stubborn natures wish for a precedent from their own beloved island they can have it, for Lister, in his "Historia Animalium Anglicae," says that in his time snails were served up at table, boiled in spring-water, and seasoned with oil, pepper, and salt.

Even Spiders have been relished as tid-bits, not only by uncivilized nations, but by Europeans of cultivation. For Reaumur tells of a young lady who was so fond of spiders that she never saw one without catching and eating it. Lalande, the French astronomer, had similar tastes; and Rosel speaks of a German who was in the habit of spreading spiders, like butter, upon his bread. This taste I do not in any way uphold, for the preying spider, which devours his fellow-insects, whether foul feeders or no, should be avoided, as are carnivorous beasts in our animal diet.

I think that I have now produced a sufficient number of precedents for the eating of insects, both in ancient and modern times, by nations civilized and uncivilized. These ought to be sufficient to incite any person of ordinary strength of mind to try for himself the unknown delicacies around him. We pride ourselves upon our imitation of the Greeks and Romans in their arts; we treasure their dead languages: why not, then, take a useful hint from their tables? We imitate the savage nations in their use of numberless drugs, spices, and condiments: why not go a step further?