Insects That Are Good To Eat

We have seen that, from the time of Moses down to the present day, various members of the insect family of Orthoptera, which includes the locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers, have been and are eaten and appreciated in many parts of the world. Now let us look at home, and consider why we should not do likewise, adding to our tables that clean meat, "the grasshopper after his kind." We are not without precedent. The example of the Church has backed up the written permission of the Bible. The Rev. R. Sheppard, many years ago, had some of our common large grasshoppers served up at his table, according to the recipe used by the inhabitants of Morocco in the cooking of their favourite locusts. Here it is. "Having plucked off their heads, legs, and wings, sprinkle them with pepper and salt and chopped parsley, fry in butter, and add some vinegar." He found them excellent. From personal experiment I can fully endorse his opinion; and there are few who would not, if they would but try this dish. I have eaten them raw, and I have eaten them cooked. Raw, they are pleasant to the taste; cooked, they are delicious. The above recipe is simple; but any one with a knowledge of cookery would know how to improve upon it, producing from this source such dishes, say, as "Grasshoppers au gratin," or "Acridae sautes a la Maitre d'Hotel."

Among the Coleoptera, or Beetles, we find many which might well serve as food; some in their larval, some in their complete state, and some in both. Here, again, there is no need to recruit from among the ranks of the carnivorous or foul feeders. There are, without those, plenty of strict vegetarians.

The grub of the Stag Beetle {Lucanus cervus) is said by many, as before mentioned, to be identical with the Cossus, which the Romans used to fatten for the table upon flour and wine. As this destructive grub, before turning to its beetle stage of life, spends some years gnawing at the hearts of our oak trees, it would be a boon to timber growers if this taste of the Romans were revived. There are many varieties of these timber-borers which might well be used for food, as are the Grugru and the Moutac grub in the East and West Indies. I have especially noticed a plump white grub which infests our young sallow trees in great numbers, boring upwards from the foot of the stem. When the plantations are cut down, why should this delicacy be wasted? If foolishly rejected at the tables of the rich, these larvae should be a joy to the woodman's family, and a reward for the toil of the breadwinner. If this were so, it would be the means of keeping down the number of these destructive pests, which are not now considered worth collecting.

What valid objection can there be to eating these insects, when the larvae of similar beetles are eaten all over the world, both by natives and by whites, and when such larvae are unanimously pronounced to be wholesome and palatable?

The Meal-worm, the larva of a small beetle (Tenebrio), is generally looked upon with disgust, as only fit food for tame birds. Even the strong-stomached and hungry sailor will rap his sea-biscuit on the table to shake out the worms before eating it. Let him shake out the worms, by all means; but let him collect them, fry in lard, and spread the dainty upon his dry biscuit. He will not again throw Meal-worms away.

In the common Cockchafer {Melolontha vulgaris) we find an inveterate enemy, which, after spending three years in gnawing the roots of our clover and grasses as a huge white grub, turns to its beetle state, only to continue its ravages upon the foliage of our fruit or forest trees. Literally tooth and nail we ought to battle with this enemy, for in both its stages it is a most dainty morsel for the table. The birds are more sensible than we. They know well the value of the fat chafer as food. With what joy the jaunty rooks, following the plough with long strides over the upturned clover lea, pounce upon the luscious grubs! What a feast the birds have among the swarms of chafers in the tall tree-tops!

Erasmus Darwin, in his "Phytologia," says: "I have observed the house sparrow destroy the Maychafer, eating out the central part of it, and am told that turkeys and rooks do the same; which I thence conclude might be grateful food, if properly cooked, as the locusts or termites of the East. And probably the large grub, or larva of it, which the rooks pick up in following the plough, is as delicious as the grub called Grugru, and a large caterpillar which feeds on the palm, both of which are roasted and eaten in the West Indies." Here is the openly expressed opinion of one of our greatest philosophers and deepest thinkers; and there is not the slightest doubt that it is correct.

Again I endorse from personal experience. Try them, as I have; they are delicious. Cockchafers are not only common, but of a most serviceable size and plumpness, while their grubs are, when full grown, at least two inches in length, and fat in proportion.

What a godsend to housekeepers to discover a new entrée to vary the monotony of the present round! Why should invention, which makes such gigantic strides in other directions, stand still in cookery? Here then, mistresses, who thirst to place new and dainty dishes before your guests, what better could you have than "Curried Maychafers" - or, if you want a more mysterious title, "Larvae Melolonthae a la Grugru"? Landowning guests ought to welcome the opportunity of retaliating, at your table, under the "lex talionis," upon this, one of the worst of their insect tormentors. Another dish, which should take with the farmer, would be "Fried Chafers with Wireworm sauce." Perhaps, however, the little word "worm" might be objected to. So let us pander to the refined senses of the delicately fastidious by writing it upon our menu as "Fried Melolonthae with Elater sauce." I know that wireworms are an excellent substitute for shrimps. There are, also, thousands of members of the same family as the shrimp (Crustaceans) in every garden, namely, the common Wood-lice (Oniscus muriarius). I have eaten these, and found that, when chewed, a flavour is developed remarkably akin to that so much appreciated in their sea cousins. Wood-louse sauce is equal, if not distinctly superior to, shrimp.

The following is the recipe: Collect a quantity of the finest wood-lice to be found (no difficult task, as they swarm under the bark of every rotten tree), and drop them into boiling water, which will kill them instantly, but not turn them red, as might be expected. At the same time put into a saucepan a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, a teaspoonful of flour, a small glass of water, a little milk, some pepper and salt, and place it on the stove. As soon as the sauce is thick, take it off and put in the wood-lice. This is an excellent sauce for fish. Try it.

Passing on to the order Hymenoptera, the Sawfly at once strikes us as a very familiar insect, which in its larval stage plays sad havoc among the gooseberry bushes, often stripping them bare of leaves, and thus spoiling all chance of fruit. We all know in what myriads the grub swarms upon the trees, and how hard it is to induce our gardener, or any one else, to take timely steps for its destruction. If it were known to be nice to eat, there would be little fear of this voracious feeder carrying on its destruction uninterrupted. It would be a race between the cook and the gardener's wife, who should first arrive at the poor gooseberry bush. There is also the Turnip Sawfly, better known to farmers as "the Black," which sometimes devours whole fields of roots, leaving not a leaf to be seen. In this order are included Bees and Wasps. From the former we already derive a delicious sweet in the form of golden honey. From the latter we might, if we chose, derive an equally delicious savoury. What disciple of old Izaak Walton, when he has been all the morning enticing the wily trout with luscious wasp grubs baked to a turn, has not suspected a new and appetizing taste imparted to his midday meal of bread and cheese or sandwich? Perhaps his own meal has travelled to the scene of action in the same basket as the rich cakes of grubs; or it may be that the fish are biting too well to allow time for a thorough hand-washing, and rapid bites are taken from the lunch in the intervals between the bobbing of the float and the replacing of the nibbled grubs. At any rate, it will, sometimes, so happen to every fisherman to get the taste and smell of cooked wasp grubs with his meal, and I have never noticed that it in any way spoilt his appetite. Attracted by the said taste and smell, and having no prejudices against insect food, I have myself spread the baked grubs upon my bread, and found their excellent flavour quite sufficient to account for the fondness of the trout for this particular bait. I will admit that wasps are occasionally carnivorous, but it is the exception and not the rule. Moreover, the saccharine fluid with which they feed their infant grubs is, I believe, entirely composed of vegetable juices, drawn from ripe fruits and flowers. Their babes, like our own, are fed only upon what are called "spoon victuals." Let us, then, welcome among our new insect dishes "Wasp grubs baked in the comb." The number of wasps' nests taken and destroyed, in a prolific season, is something extraordinary. I have known as many as sixteen or twenty nests to be taken by a gardener within a very short radius round his house. What a waste of good wholesome food takes place then, when cake after cake, loaded with fat grubs, is stamped under foot! The next order, the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), is rich in material for practical experiment and demonstration of my theory of insect food for omnivorous man. The usual stock terms for insects, "hideous," "loathsome," etc., cannot be applied with any justice to this class, which, in its perfect state is renowned for its elegant beauty, and in its larval or caterpillar state is almost invariably pleasingly coloured and by no means repulsive to the eye. Their diet, too, is of the most purely vegetarian description, consisting, as it does, in the first stage of leaves, and the sweet nectar of flowers in the second. The tiny ant knows and appreciates the sweetness of insects which feed upon the juices of plants or flowers, for it keeps and tends with care numerous milch herds of aphides or green flies, to coax from their plump bodies the pearly drops of the honey dew it loves so well.

We have always been taught that in many points the ant is to be imitated. In its just appreciation of insects as a sweet source of food it is to be imitated too. I think it is in "Swiss Family Robinson" that there is a clever account of some travellers, wandering at night through a forest by torchlight, being greatly annoyed by huge moths, which repeatedly extinguished the torches by their suicidal love of light. However, annoyance was turned to joy when, tempted by the appetizing smell of the toasted moths, the hungry travellers ventured to satisfy in part their hunger with the suicides, which they found as excellent in flavour as in smell. From what I recollect of the tale, I believe this was quite a fancy description, probably founded on the real habits of the natives which had been observed by the travelled author of the book. I well remember that, on reading that account, my youthful imagination reproduced without effort the appetizing smell of a plump baked moth; but it did not occur to me then to try such a tid-bit. Lately, however, I have done so, to find the dream of my childhood fully realized as to the delights, both in taste and smell, of a fat moth nicely baked. Try them, ye epicures! What possible argument can be advanced against eating a creature beautiful without and sweet within; a creature nourished on nectar, the fabled food of the gods?

In attempting to reconcile the popular taste to the consumption of this same order in its larval stage as "caterpillars," a more difficult task perhaps awaits me. But why? I never could thoroughly understand the intense disgust with which the appearance at the dinner-table of a well-boiled caterpillar, accidentally served with cabbage, is always greeted. The feeling is purely one of habit, and the outcome of unjust prejudice. These delicate, shuddering people, who now, with appetites gone, push away their plates upon the appearance of a well-cooked vegetable-fed caterpillar, have probably just swallowed a dozen live oysters; or they may have partaken of the foul-feeding lobster, and are perhaps pleasantly anticipating the arrival of a dish of ungutted woodcock! I have pointed out before that we have Dr. Darwin's authority that the caterpillars of the sphinx moths, as eaten by the Chinese, are very palatable; and another traveller has told us that he found the caterpillars eaten by the Hottentots tasted like almond paste. Of course, in choosing caterpillars for eating, it is necessary to discriminate between those feeding on poisonous and non-poisonous plants; but there is no more difficulty in this than in distinguishing between the edible and poisonous in berries or fungi.

The caterpillar pests swarming in our kitchen gardens, which might with advantage be collected for food, are really too numerous to be fully described here, but I will point out a few of the best; at the same time calling attention to the fact that they all feed upon the wholesome vegetables which we cultivate for our own eating. To begin, the large white cabbage butterfly (Pontia brassica) is one of our most familiar butterflies. Its caterpillar, when full-grown, is one and a half inches in length, and, owing to its unpleasant habit of living upon his cabbages, of which it usually leaves nothing but skeleton leaves, is too well known to every gardener. It is of a greenish colour upon the back, yellow underneath, striped with yellow along the back and sides, spotted all over with black, and covered more or less with tiny hairs. Miss Eleanor Ormerod (Manual of Injurious Insects) says, with reference to these pests, "Hand-picking the caterpillars is a tedious remedy, but where there is no great extent of ground, it is advisable as a certain cure."

This effectual remedy would no longer be looked upon as tedious if the fruits of the picking were to form a dish for the gardener's dinner, or appear in the menu of his mistress as "Larvae Pontiae a l'Hottentot." Again she says, "When the first brood of caterpillars are full-grown, and have disappeared from the cabbages in early summer, they have left them to turn to chrysalids in any sheltered nook near, and may be collected in large numbers by children for a trifle per hundred. They may be chiefly found in outhouses, potting-sheds, and the like places, in every neglected corner, under rough stairs, step-ladders, or beams or shelves, or fastened against rough stone walls or mortar." Why should we not imitate the Chinese, who, as I have stated, eat the chrysalids of silkworms?

Silkworms feed on the mulberry, lettuce, etc.; these caterpillars upon the homely cabbage. Let us, then, cast aside our foolish prejudice, and delight in chrysalids fried in butter, with yolk of eggs and seasoning, or "Chrysalids a la Chinoise."

The foregoing remarks apply equally to the small white cabbage butterfly (Pontia, rapae), whose caterpillars are smaller, of a green colour, and velvety, having a stripe of yellow along the back, and spots of the same colour along the sides.

Sticking still to cabbage, we next have the. cabbage moth {Mamestra brassicae), whose caterpillar is perhaps more generally known as a forward intruder at table than any other. The larva is about an inch and a half in length, varies a great deal in colour, from dirty flesh to green, and is smooth and naked-looking. Its constant habit of gnawing right down into the heart of any cabbage or cauliflower attacked renders it a great nuisance in the garden, and also accounts for its frequent, and at present uninvited, appearance in a boiled state at the dinner-table.

It was the accident of his house and pigstye being burnt to the ground that first introduced the flavour of the luscious, but unclean, pig to the celestial Chinamen. Let these minor accidental appearances at table make us acquainted with the flavour of the clean and wholesome caterpillar, and let not the silent appeal be in vain of these martyrs, who invite us to profit by their martyrdom. Let us not, with a shudder, hide the evidence of their sacrifice under a temporary shroud of vegetable, but rather let us welcome these pioneers of future delicacies with smiles and open arms

Continuing the list, I will next mention the large yellow underwing moth, whose caterpillar feeds upon turnip and cabbage leaves. The moth itself is a very familiar sight, its size and yellow underwings rendering it a conspicuous object when, disturbed from its day retreat, it rises with sluggish flight before us. In seasons when this moth is numerous great numbers might be caught, both in the daytime and at night, with the net and by sugaring trees as practised by moth-collectors. When nicely fried in butter, their plump bodies rival the torch-cooked delicacies of the traveller's tale. Again, there is the common Buff-tip, a handsome moth, with forewings of a beautiful grey colour, marked with ruddy and black patches, and tipped, as its name imports, with light buff. It is handsome. What is more, let me whisper the ogreish suggestion that its body, an inch in length, is plump, round, and sweet. Its caterpillars are well known to every one, whether Londoner or countryman, for they swarm, at the end of June, in town and country alike upon their favourite lime trees. Their yellow forms, striped and ringed with black, are often to be seen crawling across the arid desert of the London pavements in search of some congenial soil wherein they bury themselves for the term of insect purgatory. Looking up then at the tree from which these wanderers have descended, one may see branches, perhaps many, perhaps few, stripped of their foliage and down the stem other caterpillars hurriedly crawling, knowing that their time has come; that nature calls them to throw off their gay garments and humble themselves beneath the soil, before bursting out into rollicking Buff-tips. It never strikes the Londoner, as he hurries along beneath the shady trees, that these caterpillars are good to eat. He either stamps upon or carefully avoids them, according to his nature. The street boy picks up, plays with, and finally squashes them; but the extraordinary part of it is that it never strikes him to taste them. Boys taste almost everything. But this prejudice against insects seems rooted in them from the earliest age, for I have never seen a child experiment upon the unknown sweets of insect food. These Buff-tip caterpillars swarm upon the trees in such numbers, in favourable seasons, that many a dish can be obtained with a little trouble, which is amply repaid not only by their flavour, but also by the saving of the tender foliage of the limes. Most of the commoner moths which flit in thousands by night, around our fields and gardens, have nice fat carcases, and ought certainly to be used as food. Why, they are the very incarnescence of sweetness, beauty, and deliciousness; living storehouses of nectar gathered from the most fragrant flowers! They, too, voluntarily and suggestively sacrifice themselves upon the altar of our lamps, as we sit, with open windows, in the balmy summer nights. They fry and grill themselves before our eyes, saying, " Does not the sweet scent of our cooked bodies tempt you? Fry us with butter; we are delicious. Boil us, grill us, stew us; we are good all ways!"

I will now pass on to our British land mollusks, beginning with the snail, of which it has been said, "As the fisherman hates the otter, so does the gardener this voracious, destructive pest." Anathematized by every person who possesses the smallest patch of garden; lying in abundance around our feet, a wholesome food, and at the same time a pest to be destroyed, they are still almost entirely neglected by rich and poor alike, though the rich long for new dishes to tempt their jaded palates, and the poor starve. This is the more extraordinary when it is considered how fond the whole nation is of such mollusks as it is in the habit of eating. To the rich there are no greater delicacies than oysters, while the poor consume incredible quantities of the cheaper mollusks, such as cockles, whelks, etc. One has only to walk down the streets of any poor quarter of London to realize the immense trade which is done by the numerous costermongers, whose barrows are laden with little plates of ready-cooked mollusks, of many varieties. Yet in the country the poorer labourers and their families go on week after week, attempting to keep body and soul together with nothing but bread, varied, if possible, by the addition of a taste of bacon, while hundreds of nutritious and wholesome snails and slugs swarm at night upon the little cottage garden. Why this wanton and reckless waste of food? Prejudice, foolish prejudice! Half the poor of England would actually die of starvation before stretching out their hands to gather the plentiful molluscous food which their neighbours in France delight in. There are many cases - I have known several myself - where the poor will gather snails and small slugs, and swallow them raw, as a remedy for cough or weak chest; yet it never seems to strike them that this strengthening medicine is quite plentiful enough to serve as a pleasant and strengthening food. As a medicine, they are right to eat their mollusks raw, because snails and slugs, like all their class, consist principally of albumen which when raw is easily digested.

Of course the rich can afford to please themselves and reject a pleasant, wholesome food if they choose; but it seems a sin that our starving poor should continue to neglect this abundant food-supply. Something could be done by force of example. Masters might prepare savoury snail dishes, according to the recipes used in all parts of the Continent, and in course of time the servants would follow suit. One great stumbling-block in the way is the generally prevailing idea that there is only one species, the edible snail (Helix pomatia), which is fit for food, or used as such upon the Continent. It cannot be too widely known that this is quite a mistake. The only superiority of the so-called edible snail over its fellows is its superior size. The fact of its superiority in size recommended it to the Romans as the best species to cultivate for the table; the fact of it having been so favoured and cultivated above its fellows has given rise to its name, and to the false idea that none other is edible. This Helix pomatia is by no means common in England, but is found in Kent, Surrey, and other southern counties, where it is supposed by many to have been imported by the invading Romans.

The common garden snail (Helix aspersa), as well as many other smaller kinds, is eaten in France and everywhere else where snails find favour.

The real fact is that all our species of snails are edible, unless they are gathered fresh from feeding upon some poisonous plant. To avoid this danger, it is usual either to starve the snails or to feed them upon wholesome herbs for some days previous to preparing them for the table. The Romans, we read, used to fatten their snails upon meal and new wine until they attained an enormous size and excellent flavour. At the present day in Italy, they are sometimes kept in bran for some time before being eaten. In many places upon the Continent there may be seen snail-preserves, or escargotiPres, consisting of odd corners of gardens enclosed with boards and netted over the top. In these enclosures hundreds of snails are kept and fed upon wholesome vegetables and such herbs as impart to their consumers an agreeable flavour. I should like to see a simply constructed snail-preserve in every cottage garden in England. Further information on the subject will be found in an excellent work, "Edible British Mollusks," by G. M. S. Lovell, from which I take the following recipes, the excellency of which I can personally vouch for.

1. To dress snails. - Snails that feed on vines are considered the best. Put some water into a saucepan, and when it begins to boil throw in the snails and let them boil a quarter of an hour; then take them out of their shells, wash them several times, taking great pains to cleanse them thoroughly, place them in clean water, and boil them again for a quarter of an hour. Then take them out, rinse them and dry them, and place them with a little butter in a frying-pan, and fry them gently for a few minutes sufficient to brown them; then serve with some piquante sauce.

2. Snails cooked in the French way. - Crack the shells and throw them into boiling water, with a little salt and herbs, sufficient to make the whole savoury. In a quarter of an hour take them out, pick the snails from the shells, and boil them again; then put them into a saucepan, with butter, parsley, pepper, thyme, a bay-leaf and a little flour. When sufficiently done, add the yolk of an egg well beaten, and the juice of a lemon or some vinegar.

Now, don't you think those recipes sound nice? I have eaten snails raw, and I have eaten them cooked. Raw, they are nourishing, but almost flavourless; nicely cooked, they are excellent. It is of no use for me to attempt to describe their delicate taste. Try them for yourselves, and judge.

We do not find many instances of slugs being generally eaten, unless as a remedy for lung diseases; but I fail to see why, seeing how nearly they are allied to snails, they should be so generally neglected. I have known two gardeners who were in the constant habit of picking up and swallowing any small grey slugs they happened to see. One gave as his reason for so doing, that he thought his chest was weak; the other, that he liked them: both honest enough reasons. The poor might make most nutritious soup and palatable dishes from the common varieties of slug, which, left to themselves, do so much damage to farm and garden crops.

The great grey slug (Limax maximus), the red slug (Limax rufus), the black slug {Limax ater), and the small grey slug are all to be found in great numbers in most parts of England, and when properly cooked are all equally good. People who walk the fields and gardens in the daytime wonder at the immense havoc played by slugs, of which they see so comparatively few. Let them, however, go out at nightfall, with a good bull's-eye lantern, and they will see, advancing upon their crops from rubbish heaps, from hollow trees, from crevices in walls, and from every conceivable hiding-place, hosts of slugs, grey, black, red, large and small. Why should not these be gathered in hundreds and thousands by the poor for food? The larger varieties might be treated like the Chinese delicacies, the sea-slugs, cut open and dried for keeping. Slugs may be secured without the trouble of a night attack, by placing garden refuse or cabbage leaves under the shelter of boards or tiles. To these traps the slugs will come in the night to feed, and, finding themselves sheltered when day breaks, will remain there to be caught, instead of returning to their usual strongholds.

Let not the labourer say, "We starve. Meat is too dear; bread is almost as dear because the wire-worm, the leather-jacket, and the May-bug worm have thinned the crop; our little stock of flour is rendered useless by meal-worms. The caterpillars swarm upon our cabbages; the sawfly has spoilt all chance of the gooseberries we hoped to sell: hosts of great slugs and snails have devoured what the others left. Upon our fruit trees the cockchafers are gnawing the leaves to bareness."

Yes, meat is dear; but the wheat crop would have been twice as thick if the wireworms, the leather-jackets, and the luscious white chafer grubs had been diligently collected by you for food. Meal-worms are fattening. You should have hand-picked your cabbages and gooseberry trees, so that you might enjoy and profit by their would-be destroyers. The snails and slugs ought to be welcome, and sought for, to be placed in your little snail-preserve. As for cockchafers, you ought to get sixpence a score for them from the squire's housekeeper. They are, like mushrooms, to be gathered and sold as delicacies; or you could fry them for your own suppers, before they have a chance of baring your poor fruit trees. Thus you would not only save all the produce of the little garden, but also pleasantly vary your monotonous meal with wholesome and savoury dishes.

Nature, if undisturbed, balances all her creatures against each other so that no one individual kind shall, increase and multiply to an undue extent. This principle has been summed up in the quaint lines -

"Big fleas have little fleas

Upon their backs to bite 'em;

Little fleas have smaller fleas,

And so on, ad infinitum."

When not interfered with, Nature's whole machinery works with perfect regularity, and her balance is exactly poised. If, however, we presume to intermeddle, the whole system soon becomes deranged. By importing or cultivating fancy fruits unnatural to the soil, we have interfered with the machinery; by killing the birds to protect these fancy fruits, we destroy Nature's balance of her creatures - for birds are the natural counterpoise to insects. In consequence we have, to the great detriment of our crops, an overweight and undue increase of insects. To save them from their devourers, we must throw some extra weight into the opposite scale to compensate for the loss of the birds we kill. I have done my best to show how this weight may be added, and how the balance may be restored.

On the following pages I have sketched out two menus, comprising some specimen dishes which may be made from insects. Of course these menus are unnaturally crowded with insect items; but they are merely intended to show how such dishes may be usefully introduced into the chief courses of an ordinary dinner.