Sunday, January 4, 2009

Re-creating a Long-Ago Feast

As I’ve said, I’m trying to make progress in several directions: insect farming; international product acquisition; education and publishing. Yet another involves exploring the past, whether ancient or recent, to find models from which to proceed. This leads to a certain amount of research.

The broad landscape of DeFoliart’s magnum opus is full of little gems. This is one of my favorites; though a bit long, I’m including the whole thing for sake of thoroughness:


L.O. Howard (1915), lamenting that there has been very little work recently on the edibility of insects, reports results obtained at his suggestion by J.J. Davis and D.G. Tower at Lafayette, Indiana, on the eggs and larvae of Lachnosterna:

They find that Lachnosterna eggs crisply fried in butter are excellent, having a taste very much like a fine grade of bacon. The larvae, fried in butter and eaten with bread in the form of a sandwich, were not at all disagreeable, having a fresh fatty taste. They ate the heads and all, and the heads were crisp and caused no inconvenience. This line of experimentation seems to me very well worthwhile, and field agents having the opportunity and disposition are urged to experiment in this direction when it can be done easily and without loss of time.

Howard's last statement suggests that he was acutely aware of how taxpayers would view such research by a government agency.

Howard (1916) suggests that, with many nations facing food shortages because of war conditions, it is a propitious time to consider new and cheap food supplies. He notes that although there is an extensive literature on the historical use of insects as food, there has been little modern experimental work:

These facts point out the desirability of just such experiments, and practically all our colleges of agriculture, with their departments of home economics and of entomology, are in excellent position to do just this work. First, the edibility of the principal species abundant enough to furnish a good supply must be tested, and when the edibility of any one or more of them has been established, careful scientific work on their relative food value must be carried out. Two kinds of insects from the viewpoint of abundance and possible food value at once suggest themselves, namely, grasshoppers and the larvae of Lachnosterna in this country and of Melolontha in Europe - ­the so-called 'white grubs.'

Howard describes a salad and a broth prepared by Dr. C.F. Langworthy, Chief of the Office of Home Economics, USDA, from Lachnosterna larvae shipped from Madison, Wisconsin, by Mr. J.J. Davis and Professor J.G. Sanders. Howard describes the informal taste panel that was assembled:

The salad was eaten by Messrs. C.H. Popenoe, W.B. Wood, F.H. Chittenden, E.B. O'Leary, R.C. Althouse, W.R. Walton, C.E. Wolfe, and Herbert S. Barber of the Bureau of Entomology and Vernon Bailey of the Bureau of Biological Survey, as well as the writer. It was found very palatable, although in chewing, all of us discarded the tough chitinous skin. Dr. Chittenden discovered a disagreeable taste which none of the rest of us noticed. He tried only one, and possibly that one may have been a little spoiled. The broth was drunk by Mr. O'Leary and the writer, and we both agreed that it was not only perfectly unobjectionable but really appetizing.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Davis collected a sample of Lachnosterna grubs in Lafayette, Indiana, more than 100 of which were sent to Washington, and the remainder of which were made into a stew (described by Howard) which Davis and his colleagues, Messrs. Fenton and Mason, pronounced as delicious:

They prepared the grubs as they thought oyster stew was prepared, and of course ate the grubs as well as the broth. Mr. Mason thought it tasted very much like boiled crab meat and not much different from lobster. Mr. Fenton thought that it tasted much like lobster, but had not eaten crab and so was not in a position to judge whether they were more like the latter. Mr. Davis had never eaten either fresh crab or lobster, but thought that they had a decided seafood taste. All thought it 'agreeable' and 'were sorry when it was all gone.'

From the grubs sent to Washington, a stew (described by Howard) was made in Dr. Langworthy's laboratory which was found to be "very appetising." It was eaten by Messrs. E.B. O'Leary, C.E. Wolfe, C.H. Popenoe, Joseph Jacobs, A.B. Duckett, C.H.T. Townsend, C.S. Menaugh, W.R. Walton, W.B. Wood, and by Howard. Howard states that analyses and digestibility experiments were planned to determine their food value (Lachnosterna is now considered a synonym of the genus Phyllophaga). In concluding, Howard states that he is "sure that the prejudice against insects as food is perfectly unreasonable." In a footnote to this article, Howard mentions that, "Miss Colcord, the Librarian of the Bureau of Entomology of the United States Department of Agriculture, is preparing a complete bibliography of this subject [insects as food] for publication in the near future." So far as known, however, the bibliography was never published.


This is a story in which people created an object lesson that achieved its goal. Though it didn’t effect policy or funding priorities anything like that, insects were served to well-to-do Americans, under no false pretences whatsoever, and were deemed quite tasty. I would absolutely love to re-enact this story, but there’s so much I don’t know.

What method was used to harvest the beetle grubs? How much did they harvest, and how much labor did it require to get them? What cleaning process was used [not merely to wash the dirt off them, but to clean them out]? What made them decide to serve them in this fashion, and to these people? Did it lead to any similar experiments?

I’ve tried (though perhaps not with sufficient perspicacity) to find historians in the Department of Agriculture, the University of Wisconsin, and Purdue University – where, I suspect, the gentlemen had originated. I’d hoped that those archival representatives might find one or two useful accounts of what had happened.

I have no particular ambitions to raise June Beetles (Phyllophaga) for consumption. There are many other candidates I’d try first that would be more economical. Even so, it would be fun to collaborate with a chef for a few recipes…