Does the Menu Bug You?
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Book: 
Petrified Lightning

Does the Menu Bug You?

In many parts of the world, insects are an important component of everyday diet. Among early and primitive peoples, who bore no prejudice against creatures that crept, crawled, and buzzed around them, a handsome grub or beetle was a tasty, accessible snack food. The insect eaters were not aware that insects, egg and larva as well as adult, had the highest percentage of protein of any natural food. A cricket, for example, is 50 percent protein, compared with lean beef at less than 20 percent.

The bias against insects as food falls off sharply when people are starving. During their exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel wandered hungrily across the desert, praising God for manna from heaven that was spread daily across the face of the land. Manna turned out to be a secretion produced from the digestive juices of a scale insect combined with the sap of trees still common in the Sinai peninsula. Other biblical favorites were the locust, beetle, and grasshopper, which were among the acceptable foods identified in Leviticus. In a list where many beasts, fish, and fowl were designated as unclean and an abomination, these insect families were given a clean bill of health.

Since Assyrian times, when locusts were a delicacy served to monarchs, they have remained a significant part of the Arab cuisine. Sun—dried, roasted, grilled, boiled, prepared in couscous, fed to camels, they have remained an important food throughout the Muslim world. Where locusts are overplentiful, the choice is either allowing them to ravage crops or making them the crop. In 1875, when locusts were plaguing the United States, an entomologist delivered a scientific paper suggesting they be used as food. He prepared a supper of locust soup, locust cakes, and grilled locusts, with baked locusts and honey à la John the Baptist for dessert. His idea, along with his menu, proved to be quite acceptable to the scientists who shared the meal.

Among the native people of Australia, where all nature's creatures are deemed potentially edible, the women gather beetles, caterpillars, grubs, and honey ants and prepare them for the next meal. A more impromptu snack consists of such creatures as lice that are currently freeloading on their bodies. The Inuit, unable to keep their warm animal—skin garments free from lice, also eat everything they are able to collect. Head lice are a shared delicacy among some native people of the Amazon.

In many parts of Africa, more than 60 percent of dietary protein comes from insects. Some people in Ethiopia live almost exclusively on grasshoppers; others dine on plentiful giant mosquitoes. Ordinary intolerable, unswattable mosquitoes are considered too low in food value to be worth collecting. Moreover, a meal of plump mosquitoes that have just nourished themselves on human blood may seem slightly cannibalistic.

Termites are a favorite among many African people, and collectors have perfected the art of trickery. The termite hunters, having noticed that termites leave their nests in great numbers when it rains, surround a termite hill and imitate the sound of rain. As the hunters beat gently on pots, the termites stream out of their holes and are swept into tubs of water. Then they are ready to be grilled, crushed, shaped into cakes, rolled in banana leaves and poached, making a succulent and nutritious termite sausage. Hottentots eat termites boiled or raw, and other Africans roast and eat them like jelly beans.

Latin America is considered a world capital of entomophagy (insect eating), with creative variations on any number of insects, caterpillars, and other larvae. A bowl that appears to be steamed rice is more likely escamoles, the larvae of red ants. Children shake nuts out of trees and break them open to find a curled—up grub within that is sweeter than the nutmeats. At movie theaters roasted ants are eaten like popcorn. Crickets have crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. Southwest. They are roasted until crunchy, seasoned with a salt, garlic, and cayenne butter sauce, and known as Crispy Cajun Crickets.

Recently Chinese scientists developed an extract from maggots of the housefly and are negotiating with food and drug firms to mass—produce the nutrition—rich product. From just 1,000 grams of maggots can be extracted 500 grams of pure protein and 200 grams of low—fat oil and amino acids. Certainly this could be a valuable dietary supplement for the people of the world. One might hope that truth—in—packaging laws will allow a euphemism for "maggot" and leave the potential user no clue as to contents. After all, the unlisted "ingredients" that inadvertently slip into a bottle of catsup or a package of chicken are no cause for alarm.

Many creeping things are used as food by one or another population, and squeamish, narrow—minded westerners are no longer startled by what other people of the world dare to eat. A recent banquet of the Explorers Club included hors d'oeuvres of fried mealworms, crickets, and wax worm fritters. The centennial banquet of the Entomological Society featured live honey ants, giant Thai water bugs, roasted crickets, and chocolate cricket torte. As emigration from Southeast Asia and Mexico increases, insect cuisine may become more acceptable in the United States. Within the next decade, bugs may be displayed rather than hidden on grocery shelves.