"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." LEV.xi. 22
Why not eat insects? Why not, indeed! What are the objections that can be brought forward to insects as food ? In the word "insects" I here include other creatures such as some small mollusks and crustaceans which, though not technically coming under the head of insects, still may be so called for the sake of brevity and convenience. "Ugh! I would not touch the loathsome things, much less eat one!" is the reply. But why on earth should these creatures be called loathsome, which, as a matter of fact, are not loathsome in any way, and, indeed, are in every way more fitted for human food than many of the so-called delicacies now highly prized? From chemical analysis it appears that the flesh of insects is composed of the same substances as are found in that of the higher animals. Again, if we look at the food they themselves live upon, which is one of the commonest criterions as to whether an animal is, or is not, fit for human food, we find that the great majority of insects live entirely upon vegetable matter in one form or another; and, in fact, all those I shall hereafter propose to my readers as food are strict vegetarians. Carnivorous animals, such as the dog, cat, fox, etc., are held unworthy of the questionable dignity of being edible by civilized man. In the same manner I shall not ask my readers to consider for a moment the propriety or advisability of tasting such unclean-feeding insects as the common fly, the carrion beetle, or Blaps mortisaga (the churchyard beetle). But how can any one who has ever gulped down the luscious oyster alive at three-and-sixpence per dozen, turn up his nose and shudder at the clean-feeding and less repulsive-looking snail? The lobster, a creature consumed in incredible quantities at all the highest tables in the land, is such a foul feeder that, for its sure capture, the experienced fisherman will bait his lobster-pot with putrid flesh or fish which is too far gone even to attract a crab. And yet, if at one of those tables there appeared a well-cooked dish of clean-feeding slugs, the hardiest of the guests would shrink from tasting it. Again, the eel is universally eaten, fried, stewed, or in pies, though it is the very scavenger of the water - there being no filth it will not swallow - like its equally relished fellow-scavenger the pig, the "unclean animal" of Scripture. There was once an equally strong objection to the pig, as there is at present against insects. What would the poor do without the bacon-pig now?
It is hard, very hard, to overcome the feelings that have been instilled into us from our youth upwards; but still I foresee the day when the slug will be as popular in England as its luscious namesake the Trepang, or sea-slug, is in China, and a dish of grasshoppers fried in butter as much relished by the English peasant as a similarly treated dish of locusts is by an Arab or Hottentot. There are many reasons why this is to be hoped for. Firstly, philosophy bids us neglect no wholesome source of food. Secondly, what a pleasant change from the labourer's unvarying meal of bread, lard, and bacon, or bread and lard without bacon, or bread without lard or bacon, would be a good dish of fried cockchafers or grasshoppers. "How the poor live!" Badly, I know; but they neglect wholesome foods, from a foolish prejudice which it should be the task of their betters, by their example, to overcome. One of the constant questions of the day is, How can the farmer most successfully battle with the insect devourers of his crops? I suggest that these insect devourers should be collected by the poor as food. Why not? I do not mean to pretend that the poor could live upon insects; but I do say that they might thus pleasantly and wholesomely vary their present diet while, at the same time, conferring a great benefit upon the agricultural world. Not only would their children then be rewarded by the farmers for hand-picking the destructive insects, but they would be doubly rewarded by partaking of toothsome and nourishing insect dishes at home.
After all, there is not such a very strong prejudice among the poorer classes against the swallowing of insects, as is shown by the survival in some districts of such old-fashioned medicines as wood-lice pills, and snails and slugs as a cure for consumption. I myself also knew a labourer, some years ago, in the west of England, who was regularly in the habit of picking up and eating any small white slugs which he happened to see, as tidbits, just as he would have picked wild strawberries.
It may require a strong effort of will to reason ourselves out of the stupid prejudices that have stood in our way for ages; but what is the good of the advanced state of the times if we cannot thus cast aside these prejudices, just as we have caused to vanish before the ever-advancing tide of knowledge the worn-out theories of spontaneous generation and barnacle geese?
Cheese-mites, the grubs of a small fly, are freely eaten by many persons, whom I have often heard say "they are only cheese." There is certainly some ground for this assertion; as these grubs live entirely upon cheese; but what would one of these epicures say if I served up to him a cabbage boiled with its own grubs? Yet my argument that "they are only cabbage" would be fully as good as his. As a matter of fact, I see every reason why cabbages should be thus served up, surrounded with a delicately flavoured fringe of the caterpillars which feed upon them. As things are now, the chance caterpillar which, having escaped the careful eye of the scullery-maid, is boiled among the close folds of the cabbage, quite spoils the dinner appetite of the person who happens to receive it with his helping of vegetable, and its loathsome (?) form is carefully hidden at the side of his plate or sent straight out of the room, so that its unwonted presence may no further nauseate the diners. Yet probably these same diners have, at the commencement of the meal, hailed with inward satisfaction the presence on the board of dozens of much more loathsome-looking oysters, and have actually swallowed perhaps a dozen of them raw and living as quite an appetizer for their dinner! At a table of gourmands, he who by chance thus gets the well-boiled larva served up in its own natural, clean food should, instead of being pitied for having his dinner spoilt, be, on the contrary, almost an object of envy, as he who gets the liver-wing. I am quite aware of the horror with which this opinion will be read by many at first sight, but when it is carefully thought over I fail to see that any one capable of correct reasoning can deny its practical truth, even if he himself, though a frequent swallower of the raw oyster and a relisher of the scavenging lobster, continues to turn up his delicate nose at my suggestion to put it to a practical proof.
The general abhorrence of insects seems almost to have increased of late years, rather than diminished, owing, no doubt, to the fact of their being no longer familiar as medicines. At one time the fact of their being prescribed as remedies by village quacks and wise men made people, at any rate, familiar with the idea of swallowing them. Wood-lice, which conveniently roll themselves up into the semblance of black pills, were taken as an aperient; centipedes were an invaluable specific for jaundice; cockchafers for the plague; ladybirds for colic and measles. The advance of medical science and the suppression of wise folk have swept away this belief in the medicinal qualities of insects, except from out-of-the-way country corners, where a stray wise woman occasionally holds a divided sway with the parish doctor. As these theories die away, why should not the useful practice of using insects as food be introduced with advantage? From time to time letters appear in the papers inquiring as to the best method of getting rid of such insect pests as the wireworm, leather-jacket, chafer-grub, etc., and I have seen one method especially recommended. This is to set traps for the insect vermin by burying slices of turnip or potato stuck upon the ends of small sticks, whose other ends project from the ground to mark the spot. The slices, in the morning, will be covered with the mischievous ravagers, which, one answer went on to say, "may then be dealt with at pleasure." I say, then, collect them for the table. Man will often, in his universal selfishness, take the trouble to do acts, if they directly affect him or his stomach, which he would not do for their mere utility; and if these wireworms, etc., were esteemed as articles of food, there would be a double incentive to the gathering of them. We have only to glance through the pages of Miss Eleanor Ormerod's excellent work on "Injurious Insects" to see what a power for harm lies in the myriads of the insect world, even if we do not know it from sad personal experience.
There cannot be said to be any really strong objection, among the upper classes, to making any new departure in the direction of foods, if it once becomes the fashion to do so. Here is the menu of a dinner at the Chinese Restaurant at the late Health Exhibition, whose quaint delicacies were eaten and well appreciated by crowds of fashionable people, who turn up their noses at the neglected supply of new delicacies at home.