Read an Excerpt
Who Eats Bugs?
Entomophagy (pronounced en-tuh-MOFF-a-gee)—that’s bug eating to you—has been practiced for many centuries throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and North, South, and Central America. And the feasting continues according to Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology at Wageningen University and winner of the Dutch version of the Nobel Prize, with an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population eating bugs. Insects and their kin are enjoyed nearly everywhere except for Europe and the United States and Canada. That’s right: we’re the weirdos for not eating bugs.
It’s hard to say what motivated some of our forefathers to refrain from this widespread, nutritionally beneficial, and unquestionably wholesome practice. Quite possibly, our current disdain for bug cuisine was shared by the first farmers of northern Europe and, by extension, European colonists in the New World. They regarded most land arthropods, and insects in particular, as crop- and livestock-robbing pests. To these early agronomists, eating bugs was probably akin to sleeping with the enemy.
To discourage anyone from going over to the “other side,” they manufactured all manner of bad press for bugs. Hundreds of years later, fear-mongering pest control companies took the insect hate ball and ran with it. In their eyes, the only good bug was a dead one. Nowadays, most people in Europe and North America regard insects and other land arthropods as unclean, germ-laden, and foul tasting—three views that have little, if any, basis in fact.
Many of the world’s indigenous people still harvest and eat bugs, just as we do artichokes, oysters, and many of the myriad gifts from the land and sea. Did you know, for instance, that when faced with a cloud of locusts, native Algerians will break out the brooms and start sweeping their sudden bounty of insects into baskets and bags? Or that honey gatherers in Malaysia will sell the liquid bounty from a wild hive, but they’ll save any larval bees still in the honeycomb for themselves? How many of you have heard about the mopane worm business in rural South Africa? The fat, juicy caterpillars of the emperor moth are plucked from the mopane trees at Christmastime, after which they are gutted, dried, and sold at markets.
The first people of North America were avid bug eaters. I’ve read that members of the Klamath tribe of southeastern Oregon lit fires beneath trees to smoke out the caterpillars of the pandora moth, which would then fall to the forest floor, where the Klamath harvested them for later consumption. One chief is said to have amassed a ton and a half of smoked and dried pandora caterpillars during the summer of 1920.
“I have seen the Cheyennes, Snakes, Utes, etc., eat vermin off each other by the fistful,” wrote the nineteenth-century chronicler Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. “Often great chiefs would pull off their shirts in my presence without ceremony, and while they chatted, would amuse themselves with carrying on this branch of the chase in the seams. As fast as they dislodged the game, they crunched it with as much relish as more civilized mouths crack almonds and hazel-nuts or the claws of crabs and crayfishes.”
Although entomophagy may have fallen from favor among most of the members of North America’s founding tribes, it still thrives in the village markets of Oaxaca and a few other Mexican states. A favorite snack in these locations is chapulines, sun-dried grasshopper nymphs sprinkled with salt and seasoned with chile and lime. This delicacy, which originated with the native tribes of southwest Mexico, has been handed down from one generation to the next. The legacy of bug eating is also alive in the heart of Mexico City, where gourmet restaurants specializing in pre-Hispanic cuisine still offer cazuela de escamoles a la bilbaina—larval red ants, fried in olive oil and lightly dusted with dry red chile—to their discerning clientele.