The Food Insects Newsletter
Some Insect Foods of the American Indians:
And How the Early Whites Reacted to Them
November 1994. Volume 7, Issue #3.
There is a small fly (Hydropyrus hians), belonging to the group known as "shore flies" (Diptera: Ephydridae), that formerly bred in vast numbers in the alkaline waters of Mono Lake and other alkaline lakes in the California-Nevada border region. It was called kutsavi (or variations thereof) by the Paiute and other tribes. The fly pupae washed ashore in long windrows. J. Ross Brownel, who visited Mono Lake in about 1865, told of encountering a deposit of pupae about two feet deep and three or four feet wide that extended "like a vast rim" around the lake:
"I saw no end to it during a walk of several miles along the beach . . . . It would appear that the worms [read fly pupae], as soon as they attain locomotion, creep up from the water, or are deposited on the beach by the waves during some of those violent gales which prevail in this region. The Mono Indians derive from them a fruitful source of subsistence. By drying them in the sun and mixing them with acorns, berries, grass-seeds, and other articles of food gathered up in the mountains, they make a conglomerate called cuchaba, which they use as a kind of bread. I am told it is very nutritious and not at all unpalatable. The worms are also eaten in their natural condition. It is considered a delicacy to fry them in their own grease. When properly prepared by a skillful cook they resemble pork 'cracklings.' I was not hungry enough to require one of these dishes during my sojourn, but would recommend any friend who may visit the lake to eat a pound or two and let me know the result at his earliest convenience .... There must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of tons of these oleaginous insects cast up on the beach every year. There is no danger of starvation on the shores of Mono. The inhabitants may be snowed in, flooded out, or cut off by aboriginal hordes, but they can always rely upon the beach for fat meat."
William Brewer2, a professor of agriculture, had sampled kutsavi during a visit to Mono Lake in 1863. Noting that hundreds of bushels could be collected, he wrote:
"The Indians come far and near to gather them . The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernal remains, like a small yellow grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste, and under the name of koo-chah-bee forms a very important article of food. The Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its origin, it would make fine soup. Gulls, ducks, snipe, frogs, and Indians fatten on it."
Somewhat earlier, in 1845, Captain John C. Fremont3 was impressed with a windrow of kutsavi which he described as 10-20 feet in breadth and 7- 12 inches deep. Fremont related an experience told to him by an old hunter, Mr. Joseph Walker. Walker and his men had surprised a party of several Indian families encamped near a small lake who had abandoned their lodges at his approach, leaving everything behind them:
"Being in a starving condition, they were delighted to find in the abandoned lodges a number of skin bags, containing a quantity of what appeared to be fish, dried and pounded. On this they made a hearty supper; and were gathering around an abundant breakfast the next morning, when Mr. Walker discovered that it was with these, or a similar worm, that the bags had been filled. The stomachs of the stout trappers were not proof against their prejudices, and the repulsive food was suddenly rejected."
The Mormon cricket, Anabrus simplex (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae), was another important insect food of the Indians, all over the West. It is not really a cricket, being more closely related to katydids. It is a large insect, about two inches in length, wingless, and it travels in large, dense bands. Bands may be more than a mile wide and several miles long, and with 20-30 or more crickets per square yard. It is sometimes damaging to crops or range vegetation and has been a pest target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture since before the turn of the century. Major Howard Egan4 described, in his delightful first-person style, a Mormon cricket drive that took place in about 1850. The procedure was basically to dig a series of trenches, each about 30 to 40 feet long and in the shape of a new moon, cover the trenches with a thin layer of stiff wheat grass straw, drive the crickets into the grass covering the trenches, and then set fire to the grass. As the drive began, Egan thought the Indians were going to a great deal of trouble for a few crickets: "We followed them on horseback and I noticed that there were but very few crickets left behind. As they went down, the line of crickets grew thicker and thicker till the ground ahead of the drivers [men, women and children] was black as coal with the excited, tumbling mass of crickets." After the grass had been fired, Egan observed that in some places the trenches were more than half full of dead crickets: "I went down below the trenches and I venture to say there were not one out of a thousand crickets that passed those trenches."
Once the drive was over, the men and children had done their part and were sitting around while the women gathered the catch into large baskets which could be carried on their backs. We should remember that this was long before the days of the women's' movement, as Egan says, in obvious admiration:
"Now here is what I saw a squaw doing that had a small baby strapped to a board or a willow frame, which she carried on her back with a strap over her forehead: When at work she would stand or lay the frame and kid where she could see it at any time. She soon had a large basket as full as she could crowd with crickets. Laying it down near the kid, she took a smaller basket and filled it. I should judge she had over four bushels of the catch. But wait, the Indians were leaving for their camp about three or four miles away. This squaw sat down beside the larger basket, put the band over her shoulders, got on her feet with it, then took the strapped kid and placed him on top, face up, picked up the other basket and followed her lord and master, who tramped ahead with nothing to carry except his own lazy carcass. There were bushels of crickets left in the trenches, which I suppose they would gather later in the day."
Egan learned that the crickets were used to make a bread that was very dark in color. They were dried, then ground on the same mill used to grind pine nuts or grass seed, "making a fine flour that will keep a long time, if kept dry" (this was often referred to as "desert fruitcake" by early settlers). Egan's Indian companion told him "the crickets make the bread good, the same as sugar used by the white woman in her cakes."
There were other efficient methods of harvesting Mormon crickets. One of them was to drive the crickets into a stream, circa 1864. as described in the journal of Perter Gottfredson5: "The squaws [placed] baskets in the ditch for the crickets to float into. The male Indians with long willows strung along about twenty feet apart whipping the ground behind the crickets driving them towards the ditch .... [The crickets] tumbled into the ditch and floated down into the baskets . . . . They got more than 50 bushels." In this instance, service berries and wild currants were mixed with the crickets to form the loaves of bread. In a similar account of floating the crickets into baskets, John Young states that they were caught by the tons.
Another method was to simply scoop up the crickets by the bushel when they were clustered under vegetation and too cold to be active. Beatrice Whiting6 wrote of the Paiute: "The women went out early in the morning and caught them, were back by sunrise, and spent the rest of the day roasting, drying, and pounding them and putting them in bags to be cached for the winter."
There are few first-hand assessments of the flavor of Mormon crickets by early whites, for reasons that are apparent from the following excerpt from the reminiscences of Captain Joseph Aram7 who was in the Humboldt Sink in 1846: "We came to an Indian village, they came out in strong force but finding us friendly, they treated us kindly. They were digging roots on a creek bottom. They looked like a small red carrot. They gave us some that were cooked, they tasted like a sweet potato. They also offered us some dried crickets but those were declined, thinking they would not relish well with us." According to a modem account of the Honey Lake Paiute (Lassen County, California) by F. A. Riddell8, when Mormon crickets were made into a soup, the flavor was somewhat like that of dried deer meat.
A certain species of aphid even provided the Indians with sugar--in the form of the sweet honeydew it secreted. In the early Mission records of California, Pere Picola wrote in 1702: "In the months of April, May and June there falls with the dew a kind of manna, which solidifies and hardens on the leaves of reeds from which it is collected. I have tasted some. It is a little less white than sugar, but has all the sweetness of it." Some of the Fathers considered this "manna" a dispensation from Heaven.
John Bidwell9, a pioneer in the Humboldt Sink area in 1841, looked at the "manna" with a more discerning eye: "We saw many Indians on the Humboldt, especially towards the sink. There were many Tule marshes. The tule is a rush, large, but here not very tall. It was generally completely covered with honeydew, and this in turn was wholly covered with a pediculous-looking [louse-like] insect which fed upon it. The Indians gathered quantities of the honey and pressed it into balls about the size of one's fist, having the appearance of wet bran. At first we greatly relished this Indian food, but when we saw what it was made of--that the insects pressed into the mass were the main ingredient--we lost our appetites and bought no more of it."
It wasn't until 1945 that the scientific identity of the aphid was determined. Volney Jones10established its identity as Hyalopterus pruni, which is called the mealy plum aphid because it spends its winter phase on plum trees and other species of Prunus. In the spring and early summer it migrates to summer hosts, primarily the reed grass, Phragmites communis, where it produces the honeydew. The gathering of the honeydew seems to have been one of the annual seasonal rounds of activity of the Indians of the Great Basin. A family or band might camp for a short time near a stream or lake when the honeydew was ready. By piecing together various ac counts of the manner of collection, Jones gives the following picture: "The collection seems to have been primarily the work of women and children. The reeds were cut and carried away from the water .... Cutting was done just after sunrise, and the reeds were spread out to dry during the warmer part of the day to dry the honey dew and make it brittle. During the afternoon the reeds were held over a hide and beaten with a stick to dislodge the deposits of honey dew which fell on the hide and could be collected .... The honey dew was rolled into balls, wrapped in leaves, and stored in baskets until needed."
Many other insects contributed on a regular basis to the Indian diet, among them grasshoppers, cicadas, ants and ant pupae, wasp pupae and prepupae, certain beetle larvae and several kinds of caterpillars. Edible insect harvest was a part of the annual rounds of food procurement. The Indians knew exactly where to go, and when, to find the desired insects, and large numbers of people and consider able planning, travel and effort were often involved in harvesting them (Sutton10). Some insects such as the Mormon cricket, grass hoppers and pandora moth caterpillars yielded a very high energy return for the energy expended in their harvest, often much higher than return rates from seeds or other plant food resources . And. when dried, the insects were storable for use as winter food.
In several localities, pandora moth caterpillars (Coloradiapandora) are still harvested by elderly Paiute. Called piuga by the Indians, the caterpillars feed primarily on the needles of the Jeffery pine and when fully grown descend the tree trunk to pupate in the soil. They sometimes occurred in great numbers and were collected in trenches dug around the bases of the trees. They were then roasted by mixing them with hot sand. Piuga is regarded by the Paiute as "a tasty, nutritious food that is especially good for sick people, much like our chicken soup," according to Elizabeth Blake and Michael Wagner12, two researchers at the University of Northern Arizona. In former times, according to the late E. O. Essig13 (formerly an entomologist at the University of California-Berkeley), hungry whites who tasted piuga claimed that boarding with the early Californians "on the American plan was not so good."
Finally, among the insect foods of the western Indian tribes, none were more widely harvested than grasshoppers. They were most often collected by using what hunters call a "surround." H. M. Chittenden and A. D. Richardson14, in their account of the life and travels of the French missionary, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, described the "surround" used in a Shoshoco grasshopper hunt (circa 1850): "They begin by digging a hole, ten or twelve feet in diameter by four or five deep; then, armed with long branches of artemisia, they surround a field of four or five acres, more or less, according to the number of persons who are engaged in it. They stand about twenty feet apart, and their whole work is to beat the ground, so as to frighten up the grasshoppers and make them bound forward. They chase them toward the centre by degrees--that is, into the hole prepared for their reception., Their number is so consider able that frequently three or four acres furnish grasshoppers sufficient to fill the reservoir or hole."
A variation of the Shoshoco procedure was to build a fire covering 20 to 30 feet square. The people then formed a large circle around it and drove the grasshoppers onto the hot coals. Sometimes a field was simply set afire, and the scorched grasshoppers were picked up afterward. Or as in the case of Mormon crickets. grasshoppers could be collected by hand in the early morning while they were too cold to be active.
Edwin Bryant15 (circa 1848) provided one of the few assessments of grasshopper palatability by a white. following an encounter with Utah Indians, an occasion when three women appeared, "bringing baskets containing a substance, which, upon examination, we ascertained to be service-berries, crushed to a jam and mixed with pulverized grasshoppers. This composition being dried in the sun until it becomes hard, is what may be called the 'fruitcake' of these poor children of the desert. No doubt these women regarded it as one of the most acceptable offerings they could make to us. We purchased all they brought with them, paying them in darning needles and other small articles, with which they were much pleased. The prejudice against the grasshopper 'fruitcake' was strong at first, but it soon wore off, and none of the delicacy was thrown away or lost .... After being killed, they [the grasshoppers] are baked before the fire or dried in the sun, and then pulverized between smooth stones. Prejudice aside, I have tasted what are called delicacies, less agree able to the palate."
Nutritionally, insects are high in protein, fat (and thus energy) and many of the important vitamins and minerals. They have served as traditional foods in most cultures of non-European origin and have played an important role in the history of human nutrition not only in western North America, but in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As might be expected from our European cultural heritage, some early American whites looked with open disgust at the insect foods of the American Indians. It is interesting, though, that so often, as shown by the above examples, these cross-cultural encounters relative to food seemed dominated by feelings of mutual tolerance, curiosity and respect and were described with a sense of humor.
Gene R. DeFoliart, Editor
(Ed.: This article was originally written two or three years ago at the invitation of a travel and outdoor magazine published in California. When the magazine went on a reduced publication schedule, we got our manuscript back. Nobody likes to throw away a manuscript that's already written, so we decided that Newsletter readers might enjoy it.)
Addendum: This wasn't included in the original manuscript, but I think the second of the two paragraphs below quoting Father Kino (as found in Bolton 1919l6) is one of the more humorous passages (because of Kino's religious candor) that I have encountered in the older North American literature. Kino labored in California, Arizona and Sonora. In the first paragraph, he is talking about aphid honeydew. The second paragraph is more on spiritual matters, and from Father Kino's account it seems questionable as to who was converting who:
"In order that sugar, which with so great artifice and toil is made over here, may not be lacking to the Californians, heaven provides them with it in abundance in the months of April, May, and June, in the dew which at that time falls upon the broad leaves, where it hardens and coagulates. They gather large quantities of it, and I have seen and eaten it. It is as sweet as sugar to the taste, and differs only in the refraction, which makes it dark." (II:56).
"All this fertility and wealth God placed in California only to be unappreciated by the natives, because they are of a race who live satisfied with merely eating .... By nature they are very lively and alert, qualities which they show, among other ways, by ridiculing any barbarism in their language, as they did with us when we were preaching to them. When they have been domesticated they come after preaching to correct any slip in the use of their language. If one preaches to them any mysteries contrary to their ancient errors, the sermon ended, they come to the father. call him to account for what he has said to them, and argue and discuss with him in favor of their error with considerable plausibility; but through reason they submit with all docility." (II:58-60)
1. Browne, J.R. 1865? Washoe Revisited. Notes on the Silver Regions of Nevada. Oakland, Calif.: Biobooks, pp. 111-114. (Also in HarpersMonthly31:274-284;411-419.)
2. Brewer, W.H. 1930. Up and Down California in 1860-1864. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, p. 417.
3. Fremont, J.C. 1845 (1988 reprint). The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, p. 154.
4. Egan, W.M. (Ed.). 1917. Pioneering the West 1846-1878: Major Howard Egan's Diary. Richmond, Utah: Howard Egan Estate, pp. 228-233.
5. Gottfredson, P. 1874. Journal of Perter Gottfredson, From the Gottfredson Family History. Ms. on file, Utah State Hist. Soc., Salt Lake City, pp. 15-16.
6. Whiting, Beatrice B. 1950. Paiute sorcery. Viking Fund Publs. Anthropol. No. 15, New York, pp. 17-19.
7. Aram, J. 1907. Reminiscences of Captain Joseph Aram. Jour. Amer. Hist. 1, pp. 623-632.
8. Riddell, F.A. 1978. Honey Lake Paiute ethnography. Occas Papers, Nev. State Mus. 3(1):51-52.
9. Bidwell, J. 1890. The first emigrant train to California Century Mag. 19:106-130.
10. Jones, V.H.1945. The use of honey-dew as food by Indians. The Masterkey 19:145-149.
11. Sutton, M.Q.1988. Insects as Food: Aboriginal Entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press Anthropol. Papers. No.33, 115 pp.
12. Blake, E.A.; Wagner, M.R. 1987. Collection and consumption of pandora moth, Coloradia pandora lindseyi (Lepidoptera: Satur niidae), larvae by Owens Valley and Mono Lake Paiutes. Bull Entomol. Soc. Amer. 33:23-27.
13. Essig, E.0.1934. The value of insects to the California Indians. Sci. Monthly 38:181-186. 14. Chittenden, H.M.; Richardson, A.D. 1905. Life, Letters and TravelsofFatherPierre-JeanDeSmet,S.J.,1801-1873. NewYork: Harper, pp. 1032-1033.
l5. Bryant, E.1967. Whatl Saw in California . . . in the Years 1846, 1847. Palo Alto, Calif.: Lewis Osborne, pp. 162-163, 168.
16. Bolton,H.E. l919.Kino's Historical Memoir of Pimeria Alta. 2 vols. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., Vol. II, pp. 56, 58 60.
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