The Food Insects Newsletter
They Ate What?
(Catching up on the magazines)
November 1991. Volume 4, Issue #3.
By Gene R. DeFoliart
Department of Entomology
545 Russell Laboratories
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI 53706
The above is the title of an article published in the Cuisine Section of American Way, the official mag of American Airlines. I found it on my desk one day last spring. Dr. Jane Homan, who has flown to just about everywhere in her travels for the UW Office of International Agricultural Programs, had attached a note: "When this starts showing up in airline magazines it must be getting 'chic'! !
Author Dick Reavis, a contributing editor of American Way, certainly makes it sound so, with "creepy creatures" now considered by some as the height of haute cuisine. According to Reavis; "It's in style: Now that Mexican restaurants are popular from Bangor to San Diego, the cognoscenti of real Mexican food are seeking out restaurants that serve unadulterated, un-Europeanized food from Central America and Mexico. Pre-Hispanic or pre-Columbian food it's called, the kinds of dishes Mexicans ate before the region was subdued by the Spanish. Worms [read insect larvae], cooked or live, are a big part of pre-Hispanic cuisine, and eating them has become a rite of passage for those who would be intimate with the Mexican past."
One restaurant providing this kind of fare is Don Chon's, near the historic La Merced market in Mexico City, "a back-street landmark for rustics and adventurous connoisseurs." It's unpretentious, "but diplomats, ambassadors, and the theater crowd flock there at lunchtimes." The owner of Don Chon's, Leopoldo Ortega, notes that back in the fifties, the restaurant was mainly patronized by the vendors who came to La Merced from the countryside. Because pre Hispanic food has become relatively expensive, tourists and people with bohemian tastes now outmumber the country folk, who, Ortega says, have "become our sellers more than our customers." A hint of how expensive is given by Reavis who ordered a plate of red agave worms [larvae of the moth, Xyleutes redtenbachi]; price, 30,000 pesos or about $11, nearly two times the daily wage of most Mexicans. (Reavis also tried a side dish of live worms and describes the indelicate maneuvers required to remove one when it bit him.)
Reavis concludes his article with the following paragraph: "In my opinion, the finest pre-Hispanic delicacy at Don Chon's (and also sometimes served at the highbrow Prendez restaurant downtown on 16 de Septiembre Street, a place not known for pre-Hispanic food; that it even offers such a dish proves the trend) is escamoles in green sauce, sprinkled with diced onion and bits of cilantro. Escamoles are the larvae of black ants. When boiled, they look like cottage cheese. Rank amateurs scoop them up with a spoon, and ordinary Mexicans with a corn tortilla But the blase know, and the bold quickly see, that a torta de ahuatli - a wafer made of batter and the eggs of a swamp fly [read Mexican caviar, eggs of several species of aquatic Hemiptera, or true bugs] - does the trick in higher style. The season for escamoles is in the spring. By then, Don Chon's will also be serving white worms as big as your fingers. I don't know if they bite, but take my advice: They're tasty when toasted, but I wouldn't eat them alive."
- If we are looking for glamour, however, we needn't settle for the airline magazines. How about the 1989 25th Anniversary Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated! Now we're talking sun and surf and the Pacific Coast of Mexico. But, according to the author, it is the worst place in the world to be a grasshopper. A recipe is offered (page 260) for a small species sometimes served for lunch in Oaxaca:
About 1000 grasshoppers (the younger the better)
1/2 cup chili sauce
pinch of salt
1 cup guacamole
Directions: Soak the grasshoppers in clean water for 24 hours. Boil them, then let dry. Fry in a pan with garlic, onion, salt and lemon. Roll up in tortillas with chili sauce and guacamole. According to the author, "Serves six if you can fund six."
- If one prefers not glamour but a more sedate and intellectual approach, one can consult Natural History magazine, specifically food historian Raymond Sokolov's column, "A Matter of Taste." Three times in the past two years, Sokolov has dipped into things entomophagous. The first was in the August 1989 issue in an article titled, " Before the Conquest" and subtitled "Thousands of Mexican dishes could not have existed before Cortes." Sokolov notes that Mexico offers a better opportunity than most cultures do for precisely tracing the evolution of a national cuisine. The evidence comes from many sources; the Aztecs, who wrote about their own civilization; from pre-Columbian and colonial Mexican an; from ethnographic documents produced at the direction of the Spaniards soon after the conquest; and from survival of ancient foodways that are still abundantly practiced in Mexico today.
The single most important work was the monumental General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana), by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun. From Sahagun it is known that the Aztec diet was based on corn and tortillas, tamales and plenty of chilies in many varieties. Sokolov describes how this diet was influenced by the importation of European-style foods that began with Cortes, and states that it is a wonder "that so much of what Mexico ate before Cortes is still available today and popularly consumed, from cactus paddles to chilies, from tadpoles to various worms and bugs."
The article concludes with a recipe for Salsa de Jumilies (Mountain chinch sauce) taken from Adela Fernandez's book, La Tradicional Cocina Mexicana y sus Mejores Recetas, Panorama Editorial, Mexico, 1989. We have not reprinted this recipe because we doubt that very many Americans are yet ready for it. Jumilies belong to the "stink bug" family, Pentatomidae, Order Hemiptera.
- In the September 1989 issue of Natural History, Sokolov follows up on the previous month with an article titled "Insects, Worms, and Other Tidbits" and subtitled "The Mexican diet, before Cortes, obtained high-quality protein from lowly sources." He emphasizes that "authentic" cuisine "virtually everywhere" is not the immobile tradition that traditionalists wish it to be," and furnishes an impressive list of foods contributed by the New World to the Old, including potato, tomato, corn, chocolate, squashes, beans and many others. Some of these New World foods have had great nutritional impact, for example, the sweet potato, peanut and the chili pepper in China, and manioc, corn, peanuts and pumpkins in Africa.
Relative to Mexico when Cortes appeared Sokolov notes that the country " was a major world civilization with a vigorous culture that continues to challenge imported European culture today. [Enough native Mexicans have survived] to carry on local food traditions in tandem with the new ideas and foods from Spain and the Spanish Empire." Insects of many species are a prominent part of these local food traditions, but Sokolov devotes the most space to the maguey worm, larvae of the giant skipper butterfly, Aegiale hesperiaris, which are also called palomillas del maguey (maguey squabs), champolocos, meccuilines and pecahs. Sokolov paraphrases the account of these larvae in Teresa Castello Yterbide's Presencia de la Comida Prehspanica (Banamex, 1986), as follows: "Larvae harvesters poke about among the maguey's lower leaves, looking for the telltale tunnels at the base of the leaves near the outer edges. Working very carefully with a machete, so as not to disembowel the larvae unwittingly, they cut open the leaf. To extract the larvae whole, they use hooks formed by cutting thin strips from the edge of a maguey leaf. Then they remove all its spines except for one at the end of the strip. This they form into the hook they use to catch the larvae by the head. To store the larvae, they make pouches with the skin of a tender new maguey leaf, which is called mixiote (it gives its name, synecdochically, to a dish made of chunks of marinated meat wrapped in mixiote pouches and steamed).
To cook the larvae, people sometimes just put a whole gusano (larvae)-filled mixiote over coals or hot ashes, or they might just put the larvae directly on a bakestone until they swell and stiffen, turning golden brown and crunchy. And this is not some quaint account of a long-forgotten practice. Castello Yturbide nonchalantly mentions that maguey larvae can be obtained in April in the market of San Juan in Mexico City or in Actopan and Ixmiquilpan (two villages of the state of Hidalgo) or in farm hamlets around Mexico City.
Relative to other insects, Sokolov notes that the eggs of water bugs (moscos de pajaro) (Hemiptera) are still harvested in the same manner described by Sahagun. Today, they are toasted, ground up and made into little cakes held together with turkey egg. In the late 18th Century, they were apparently a garnish for the festive dish called revoltijo, served on Christmas Eve and at the vigil of Thursday night of Holy Week. Other insects still eaten include locusts, available year-round at markets in Oaxaco and Atlixco, toasted and eaten with tortillas and a sauce of chili pasilla; mountain chinch bugs, eaten toasted or living; oak-boring beetles which are popular as snacks among Mixtec peasants; ant larvae and pupae (called ant eggs); and in Jungapeo, Michoacan, wasps. Two excellent photographs (one of maguey worms) accompany the article. (Ed.: It can be noted that Dr. Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, who has done extensive research on entomophagy in Mexico, has reported that more than 200 species of insects are still eaten in Mexico [personal communication, 1986]).
Raymond Sokolov's third venture into entomophagous topics occurred in the July 1991 issue of Natural History when he drew the difficult assignment of trying to write a food column relevant to the remainder of the July issue, which was devoted entirely to mosquitoes. In this one, he draws some material from past issues of The Food Insects Newsletter. particularly on bakuti (made from brood of the giant honey bee in Nepal, as described by Professor Michael Burgeu in the November 1990 issue). In the process, Mr. Sokolov makes some nice comments about the Newsletter, which immediately stamped him as my favorite food author. But. if you are wondering about the mosquito connection, even a gifted writer like Mr. Sokolov encounters some difficulty. After flowery dissertation at some length about the joys of fly-tying, the beauty of mountain streams, and other interesting diversions, he finally settles for the basic fact that trout eat mosquitoes and we eat trout.
- Marge Knorr, a free-lance (primarily travel) writer from Reno, Nevada, had an article called "Food for Thought: Are Mormon crickets pests or protein?" in the May/June 1991 issue of Nevada magazine. At the end of the article, Ms. Knorr identifies herself as "a loyal subscriber to The Food Insects Newsletter," making her another favorite author. Inspiration for her article was the 1990 banner year for Mormon crickets in Nevada, but the she describes interviews with a number of entomologists and anthropologists on a variety of edible insects. Diverse insights emerged. Catharine Fowler, an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada Reno, described pandora moth [Coloradia pandoral caterpillars as "very good - like a scrambled egg omelet with mushrooms." About 10 years ago, Fowler mediated a dispute between the Paiute Indians and the U.S. Forest Service in California as to whether the caterpillars (a traditional food of the Paiute) would be harvested or sprayed. This time the Paiute won. On the other hand, an assistant professor of nutrition at the UNR said, "I'd never eat insects. I'm too deeply immersed in my own culture."
- Finally, to be right up-to-date, there is an article called "Zaire River: Lifeline for a Nation," by Robert Caputo in the current issue (November 1991) of National Geographic. It is accompanied by an interesting photograph (page 26) captioned: Caterpillars and palm grubs fresh off the riverboat cover a table in Kinshasa's central market.
- The pre-Hispanic insect foods of Mexico seem to get the lion's share of attention from the popular press in the United States. Don Chon's, in particular, has been featured or at least mentioned in several magazines and newspapers, lately, and by now it must be one of the best known restaurants in Mexico. Makes you wonder if some enterprising restaurateur in the U.S. might reap a million dollars' worth of publicity free by offering some of the grasshoppers, harvester ants, yellowjacket larvae/pupae, etc. that were such an important part of the food of our Indian forebears on this continent.
The foregoing is not by any means a complete inventory. There are no doubt many articles that we have not seen, and only one (of many) in which this editor has been involved as an interviewee is included. It would be hard to believe that the kind of media bombardment that has been occurring isn't increasing public awareness that edible insects are respectable players on the world stage. GRD
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