Peppered, salted, sprinkled with finely chopped parsley, fried in butter, and dunked in vinegar, locusts make a dish whose savor is rivaled perhaps only by pan-seared stag beetles fattened on wine and flour. Browned meal worms served on a biscuit pairs well with woodlouse purée and is a terrific entrée for a main dish of grilled Buff-tip caterpillars or chafed chrysalides. Plump baked moth, oven-fresh and piping hot, is a dessert so surpassingly sweet as to upstage any visions of sugar plums that may dance in children’s heads.
Such unlikely epicureanism was first promoted by British clergyman and amateur entomologist Vincent M. Holt in his 1885 pamphlet “Why Not Eat Insects?”, which became a minor Victorian sensation. The Dublin Journal of Medical Science heaped scorn on Holt’s “little brochure,” calling it “repellant,” “repulsive,” “even disgusting.” The satirical magazine Punch took a characteristically lighter view, however, finding the occasion to gibe the good reverend in doggerel verse, the first few lines of which read:
My starving friends, your clamour bores,
Why don’t you turn Insectivores?
You want an inexpensive treat,
I offer ‘Insects good to Eat.’
You talk, at times, of ‘Rising,’—rise,
Like fish, and feed, like them, on flies...
In the critical furor was lost Holt’s meticulous and eminently reasonable case. Thrift was certainly a concern, but it wasn’t the only one. Nutrition also bore heavily on the issue, and Holt considered insect flesh as comparing altogether favorably to that of swine or cow. What a bug eats determines its dietetic value. Neither feces-swarming bottle flies nor necrophagous churchyard beetles should ever appear on bills of fare. Instead, insects “clean, palatable, wholesome, and decidedly more particular in their feeding” than those feeding on them should adorn boards and larder shelves.
Holt buttresses his scientific argument with appeals to history, citing the insectivorous precedents set by John the Baptist, who famously subsisted on wild-honey locust schmears, and by Aristotle, who frequently snacked on cicadas “heavy with their burden of eggs.” Yet Holt enlists the past to address present exigency. He published “Why Not Eat Insects?” at a time when a long economic depression had Great Britain in its grip as a consequence of tight monetary policy. Adding to the misery were several crop failures that left the swelling ranks of poverty-stricken Britons with empty stomachs. The prospect of mass starvation prompted scientists, both amateur and professional, to seek answers to that perennial nineteenth-century question, “What is to be done?” They considered every kind of conceivable nutriment from mushrooms to lobsters.
In his own search, Holt looked no further than the creepiest of crawling things. Deliverance from want would arrive on diaphanous wings—and not only for the poor but for all classes. He envisioned an elegant system in which the lower orders were put to work on farms “hand-picking destructive insects” from crops. The poor could claim these pests as their wages with which they could prepare “toothsome and nourishing dishes.” A diet of insects was thus no mere culinary preference; it was the basis of a most benignant political economy.
This “Let them eat katydids!” attitude downplays the real iniquities of Holt’s time: the gentleman journeys home to his mutton, and the pauper to his millipedes, a situation that discounts the fact that meals mean much more than sustenance. Seldom have such notions as “calories” or “protein” inspired gatherings, after all. Conviviality and fellow feeling consecrate our feasts, and they depend on dishes evocative of these ideas. Roaches served in place of roasts simply won’t do. For all of its apparent utility, there remains something about Holt’s modest proposal that, well, just kind of bugs you.
A dinner gathering at chez Holt would likely feature the courses listed on a menu that appears at the end of his pamphlet:
August 4, 2011Menu
Boiled Cod with Snail Sauce.
Wasp Grubs fried in the Comb.
Moths sautéed in Butter.
Braized Beef with Caterpillars.
New Carrots with Wireworm Sauce.
Gooseberry Cream with Sawflies.
Devilled Chafer Grubs.
Stag Beetle Larvae on Toast.