Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/Locusts as Food for Man

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THIS subject may appear to some, if not all of you, a rather peculiar one. The eating of insect-flesh is entirely repugnant to our feelings, and at once arouses all our natural and inherited antipathies. Even those who accept literally the Mosaic history of the creation as set forth in the book of Genesis, are loath to take advantage of the permissory bill of fare granted by Divine authority in the book of Leviticus. In the eleventh chapter of Leviticus, verses 1, 21, and 22, will be found these words:

1. "And the Lord spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them: . . .

21. "Yet these may ye eat, of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;

22. "Even these of them 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."

Other references may be found in the Bible to the use of locusts as food. In one place in particular, in Mark i, 6, we read that "John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey."

From these passages we learn that in olden times locusts were considered to be an article of food. And wild honey, which is an insect product, is highly prized by both aboriginal and civilized communities even to this day. In no one particular are we so much the creatures of custom and habit as in eating. That which is a delicacy to one is disgusting to another. The food relished by one nation or tribe may be spurned by another as loathsome. The inhabitants of the interior and mountains are often nauseated by the toothsome dishes of the denizens of the coast. A knowledge of the habits of certain animals (I use the term "animals" in its biological sense as distinguished from plants) often gives rise to an unconquerable abhorrence of the use of their flesh as food. To show how empirical are man's standards of edibles, it will only be necessary to cite a few instances. Beef, for example, is an almost universal article of food. But, should I place before my readers a roast of beef and tell them that this meat was taken from an animal that was accidentally drowned yesterday, my guests would very likely be indignant as well as disgusted, while at the same sitting they would eat and praise the flavor of a fish caught upon the same date and then left to drown in the air, if I may use the term, while it flops about and writhes with all the intensity of agony of which its low nervous organization is capable. We dote upon lobsters and lobster-salad, while a shudder of horrible disgust runs through our frames at the idea of eating a buzzard or a hyena. Yet the lobster is the scavenger of the sea as truly as the others perform the same functions upon the land.

We love the speckled beauties that haunt the mountain-streams, feeding upon insects and worms, while the Apache Mojave Indian turn in scorn from such a dish. The same Indians will regale themselves with the blood that flows from the death-wound they have just inflicted upon a deer, and will eat with relish the liver, smaller intestines, etc., while yet warm, and with little or no preparation; but we could hardly be induced to imitate their example.

Nothing can be more omnivorous and filthy in their feeding habits than chickens and swine; yet we relish the flesh of both with zest. Tripe, liver, and kidneys are esteemed by us, though a knowledge of their functions might cause a tremor of squeamishness to thrill through our bodies. As epicures we eat the diseased livers of geese, insect eating frogs, small birds and game in an advanced stage of decomposition, and call them delicious as we discourse upon their "gamy" flavor, and at the same time we would not entertain for a moment the idea of eating a dish of freshly-roasted locusts which have fed upon the clean, juicy herbage of our fields. The Hebrews of North Africa eat boiled and fried locusts with avidity, while their co-religionists in this country turn from lobsters with scornful loathing.

The Arab relishes the savory dishes made from locusts, while he expresses his abhorrence of our habit of eating raw oysters. Our society belles shriek with horror and fright at the appearance of a cockroach, yet they sip with pleasure the sherry and madeira wines that are aged, mellowed, and flavored with these pests.

Professor Charles V. Riley, for a long time State Entomologist of Missouri, and now Entomologist at the United States Agricultural Department at Washington, undertook in 1875 a series of experiments "to demonstrate the availability of locusts as food for man, and their value as such whenever, as not infrequently happens, they deprive him of all other sources of nourishment." Professor Riley took a lot of locusts to an hotel to be cooked, but he endeavored in vain to obtain assistance from the monarchs of the gridiron. The cooks and servants retired in disgust, and left the naturalists to do their own cooking. The savory messes that the latter concocted converted the kitchen; cooks and guests alike agreeing that the soups, fricassees, and fritters, composed materially of locusts, were excellent. In regard to these experiments Professor Riley says:

"It had long been a desire with me to test the value of this species (spretus) as food, and I did not lose the opportunity to gratify that desire which the recent locust invasions into some of the Mississippi Valley States afforded. I knew well enough that the attempt would provoke to ridicule and mirth, or even disgust, the vast majority of our people, unaccustomed to anything of the sort, and associating with the word 'insect' or 'bug,' everything horrid and repulsive. Yet I was governed by weightier reasons than mere curiosity; for many a family in Kansas and Nebraska was, in 1874, brought to the brink of the grave by sheer lack of food, while the St. Louis papers reported cases of actual death from starvation in some sections of Missouri, where the insects abounded and ate up every green thing, in the spring of 1875.

"Whenever the occasion presented, I partook of locusts prepared in different ways, and one day I ate of no other kind of food, and must have consumed, in one way or another, the substance of several thousand half-grown locusts. Commencing the experiments with some misgivings, and fully expecting to have to overcome disagreeable flavor, I was soon agreeably surprised to find that the insects were quite palatable in whatever way prepared. The flavor of the raw locust is most strong and disagreeable, but that of the cooked insect is agreeable and sufficiently mild to be easily neutralized by anything with which they may be mixed, and to admit of easy disguise, according to taste or fancy. But the great point I would make in their favor is that they need no elaborate preparation or seasoning, and that they really require no disguise; and herein lies their value in exceptional emergencies, for, when people are driven to the point of starvation by these ravenous pests, it follows that all other food is scarce or unattainable. A broth, made by boiling the unfledged calopteni for two hours in the proper quantity of water, and seasoned with nothing but pepper and salt, is quite palatable and scarcely to be distinguished from beef-broth, though it has a slight flavor peculiar to it and not easy to be described. The addition of a little butter improves it, and the flavor can, of course, be modified with mint, sage, and other spices ad libitum. Fried or roasted in nothing but their own oil, with the addition of a little salt, they are by no means unpleasant eating, and have quite a nutty flavor. In fact, it is a flavor, like most peculiar and not unpleasant flavors, that one can soon learn to get fond of. Prepared in this manner, ground and compressed, they would doubtless keep for a long time. Yet their consumption in large quantities in this form would not, I think, prove as wholesome as when made into soup or broth, for I found the chitinous covering and corneous parts, especially the spines on the tibiæ, dry and chippy, and somewhat irritating to the throat. This objection would not apply with the same force to the mature individuals, especially of the larger species, where the heads, legs, and wings are carefully separated before cooking; and, in fact, some of the mature insects prepared in this way, then boiled, and afterward stewed with a few vegetables, and a little butter, pepper, salt, and vinegar, made an excellent fricassee. . . .

"I sent a bushel of scalded insects to Mr. John Bonnet, one of the oldest and best-known caterers of St. Louis. Master of the mysteries of the cuisine, he made a soup which was really delicious, and was so pronounced by dozens of prominent St. Louisians who tried it. Shaw, in his 'Travels in Barbary' (Oxford, England, 1738), in which two pages are devoted to a description of the ravages of locusts, mentions that they are sprinkled with salt and fried, when they taste like crawfish; and Mr. Bonnet declared that this locust-soup reminded him of nothing so much as crawfish bisque, which is so highly esteemed by connoisseurs. He also declared that he would gladly have it on his bill of fare every day if he could only get the insects.

"His method of preparation was to boil on a brisk fire, having previously seasoned them with salt, pepper, and grated nutmeg, the whole being occasionally stirred. When cooked, they are pounded in a mortar with bread fried brown, or purée of rice. They are then replaced in the saucepan and thickened to a broth by placing on the warm part of the stove, but not allowed to boil. For use, the broth is passed through a strainer and a few croutons are added. I carried a small box of fried ones to Europe, where they were tasted by numerous persons, including members of the London Entomological Society and of the Société Entomologique de France. Without exception, they were pronounced far better than was expected, and those fried in their own oil, with a little salt, remained good and fresh for several months; others fried in butter became slightly rancid, a fault of the butter. Mr. C. Home, F. Z. S., writing to 'Science Gossip,' says: 'In the evening I had asked two gentlemen to dinner, and gave them a curry and croquette of locusts. They passed for Cabool shrimps, which in flavor they very much resembled; but the cook having inadvertently left a hind-leg in a croquette, they were found out, to the infinite disgust of one of the party and the amusement of the other.'. . .

"Locusts will hardly come into general use for food, except where they are annually abundant; and our Western farmers, who occasionally suffer from them, will not easily be brought to a due appreciation of them for this purpose. Prejudiced against them, fighting to overcome them, killing them in large quantities, until the stench from their decomposing bodies becomes at times most offensive, they find little that is attractive in the pests.

"For these reasons, as long as other food is attainable, the locust will be apt to be rejected by most persons. Yet the fact remains that they do make very good food. When freshly caught in large quantities, the mangled mass presents a not very appetizing appearance, and emits a strong and not overpleasant odor; but, rinsed and scalded, they turn a brownish red, look much more inviting, and give no disagreeable smell."

That locusts have been used as food from remote antiquity is well attested by historical writers. As stated before, they are classed among the "clean meats" in Leviticus (xi, 22), and are referred to in other parts of the Bible as human food. One of the Nineveh sculptures deposited in the British Museum represents men carrying different kinds of meat to some festival, and among them some carrying long sticks, to which locusts are tied, thus showing that they were of sufficient importance to form part of a public feast.

Locusts have been, and are yet, extensively employed as an article of food in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Romans are said to have roasted them to a bright golden yellow before eating them; and in Russia they are salted or smoked like herrings. Pliny says that locusts were highly esteemed by the Parthians; Herodotus speaks of a tribe of Ethiopians that fed on locusts; and the records of their use in ancient times as food, in both Southern Europe and Asia, are abundant. At the present day this use still continues.

Riley, in his narrative,[1] says: "Locusts are esteemed very good food by the Moors, Arabs, and Jews, in Barbary, who catch large numbers of them in their season, and throw them, while jumping alive, into a pan of boiling argan oil; here they hiss and fry until their wings are burned off, and their bodies are sufficiently cooked, when they are poured out and eaten. I have seen many thousands cooked in this manner, and have had the curiosity to taste them; they resemble, in consistence and flavor, the yolks of hard-boiled eggs."

The Riff Arabs, when they see a swarm of locusts hovering in the air and clouding the sky, watch them with anxiety, and when they descend near their habitations they receive them with shouts of gratitude to God and Mohammed, throw themselves on the ground, and collect them as fast as possible. The locusts, deprived of their heads, legs, and wings, are well boiled in butter, and served up with a substance called alcuzcuz. The Riff Arabs consider them delicious food. Their camels also eat them greedily. The Moors use them to this day, by first boiling and then frying them. The Moorish Jews, more provident than their Mussulman neighbors, salt them and keep them for making a dish called dafina which forms the Saturday's dinner of the Jewish inhabitants. This dish is made by putting meat, fish, eggs, tomatoes, locusts, "in fact, almost anything edible, into a jar, placing the latter in an oven on Friday night, and then taking it out hot on the Sabbath." In this manner the orthodox Hebrew gets a hot dinner without committing the sin of lighting a fire upon that day.

The Indians of California and the Great Basin also collect locusts for food. The Digger Indians roast them and grind or pound them into a sort of flour, which they mix with pounded acorns, the nuts of the piñon-pine, or with berries. This mixture they make into cakes and dry in the sun for future use.

Among the other uses to which locusts are applied is fish-bait for the sardine-fisheries off the coast of Spain; and similar bait might be prepared by the Western farmers for use upon the Atlantic and Pacific fishing-grounds. A very important chemical substance used in the arts may be extracted from locusts by the action of sulphuric acid. This is formic acid, for which many applications have been found in therapeutics and in the laboratory. By collecting, killing, and burying them in trenches, or in compost-heaps, these insects might be utilized as fertilizing agents, or they might be collected in large quantities, dried, and sent East in bales as food for poultry.

Although the writer does not profess to be an advocate of entomophagy, nor does he intend to become an acridophagist himself, unless absolutely necessary, yet he believes, with Professor Riley, that, when the devastations of the Rocky Mountain locusts lay waste our Western domain, the inhabitants of these regions need not die for want of food so long as a supply of locusts exists. Persons should not allow prejudice and squeamishness to stand in the way of self-preservation.

  1. Published in 1859.