It's Hard to Eat Just One

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1997

It's Hard to Eat Just One

A brief and crunchy defense of entomophagy
By Ian Frazier

Showing off for the bridesmaids at my sister's wedding reception years ago, I caught and ate a large black cricket. Later I mentioned the incident in a book I wrote. At a talk I gave recently, someone who had read the book asked if the story was true. My sister happened to be present, so I pointed her out and told the questioner he should ask her himself. All heads swiveled to look at her where she was sitting by the aisle in the back row. "He eats bugs," she explained shortly, her lip curled in understated disgust.

Well, I do. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes, when the opportunity is at hand. And I don't think of them as bugs, but as whatever specific kind of insect they happen to be. My friend Don and I are the only people I know of who have eaten insects until we were full. Those were Brown Drake mayflies, snatched from the surface of a northern Michigan trout river just as they hatched from their aquatic form into winged insects. They appeared in great numbers, and the fish went crazy chasing them, and somehow that afternoon instead of fishing we joined in. I could understand why the fish were acting like that: If you're into mayflies, it's hard to eat just one. I would not go so far as to call mayflies delicious, but they do have a satisfying crunch and a taste like the soft part at the bottom of a stalk of grass.

This wasn't something I started as a kid, to gross out rivals on the playground. When I was growing up, decades ago in northern Ohio, you didn't experiment too much with what you ate. You had your peanut butter and jelly and your meat and potatoes, and that was about it. I didn't even have pizza until I was 14. A year or two later, my cousins moved to a fancy Connecticut suburb of New York City and at Christmas sent back sophisticated presents from the East. For me, my aunt chose an assortment of gourmet snacks I'd never seen before, including a box of chocolate-covered ants and bees. They came in cubes of chocolate wrapped in red foil or silver foil, depending on the insects inside. I waited awhile before giving them a try. I didn't even know for sure if I was really supposed to. It was an unusual present for a grown-up relative to give. But I was a teenager, and the time the 1960s, and the unusual seemed to be happening every day. So what the heck--the taste was chocolate, mainly, with a chitinous crunch to it and a slight bitterness underneath. The important lesson I learned was that you can eat quite a lot of ants and bees and still be fine.

Like many discoveries of the sixties, this one had been made before. Throughout history, we humans have eaten bugs. Although they have been out of fashion in our recipes for a while now, that wasn't always so. Archaeologists who study diet in pre-Columbian America say that in parts of the West at certain times of year, grasshoppers appear to have been the staple food.The terrifying dark clouds of hoppers that descend on western farms may have meant breakfast in earlier times. Frontier travelers in the nineteenth century reported that Indians liked to eat insects and knew how to fix them. A man named Edwin James who traveled in the Rockies in 1820 said that Snake Indian women collected a certain kind of ant from anthills in the cool of the morning when the insects were easier to catch, put the ants into a special bag, washed and cleaned them of dirt and bits of wood, put them on a flat stone, crushed them with a rolling pin, rolled them like pastry, and made them into a delicious (to the Indians) soup.

Then of course there's the insect-eating in the Bible. The dietary laws in the Old Testament book of Leviticus list as foods forbidden to eat not only the rabbit and the pig, but also such unlikely table fare as the osprey, the pelican, and the weasel. "Flying, creeping things," i.e., insects, are also generally unclean and forbidden. But a single verse makes these exceptions: "Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind." As loopholes go, that's pretty good-sized; it suggests the lawgiver was responding to a real demand. The most famous wilderness dweller of the Bible, John the Baptist, dressed in animal skins as he wandered about preaching the coming of the Messiah. His food, we are told, was locusts and wild honey. The wild honey is not a surprise, but note his choice of insect. Even living off the land, John the Baptist kept kosher--a wild man, but still a good Jewish boy.

The truth is, aside from that black cricket and the chocolate-covered ants and bees, and aside from some night crawlers (annelids, technically not insects) that I sliced up and fried to leathery inedibility, and aside from one or two others I have forgotten about, the insects in my diet have almost all been mayflies. If you know nothing about mayflies, it may be hard to understand their appeal. The "fly" in the name, for starters, is misleading; mayflies are nothing like the house or bluebottle variety. Mayflies spend most of their lifespan underwater as swimming insects called nymphs. They burrow in the mud or hide under rocks and breathe through gills. Their presence in a river or other freshwater is a good sign that it is well oxygenated and passably clean. They range in size from and inch and a half to almost pinhead small. They mate not in water but in air, so at certain times of year, most spectacularly in late spring, they come to the surface and emerge from their nymphal forms into winged insects. As winged insects, they mate, lay eggs, and die.

Sometimes they hatch en masse, like seniors graduating or couples marrying in June. A hatch, as it's called, is one of those events when, beneath nature's customary inscrutability, you can hear her saying, "Par-r-r-r-r-ty!" Mayflies start to pop up on the surface of the river--first one, then a few, then more, then hundreds of them floating downstream like runaway cakes off a conveyor belt in that episode of I Love Lucy. New creatures in a new environment, they're dazed, and their wings are damp, and in the moments before they get their bearings and fly they're the best free lunch a fish ever had. Trout of all sizes, from minnows on up, begin to feed with a growing sense of exultation that soon draws even the wise and reticent big guys from their cover. I've seen trout pursue mayflies with splashes and fillips and show-offy flourishes of the tail, just for joy. Swallows come swooping down and take the mayflies as they float, and dragonflies hit them in the air with a little crunching zip that removes only the thorax and leaves the wings to flutter back down and drift away. Robins zigzag overhead, braking so suddenly when they catch one in midflight that their feet skid forward in front of them. In webs along the bank, spiders wake up to a sudden windfall and hurry to subdue the captives. In the spring air, the new mayflies float and shimmer like soap bubbles. The whole scene usually makes me want to get busy and catch some fish; sometimes it makes me want to just lay back my head and open my mouth and let the bounty fall in.

Once, when I was just starting out as a reporter in New York, I attended a grossly expensive dinner to promote some movie or other. It was held at an Indian restaurant, and for the last course, after the desserts and the teas, waiters brought out linen-covered trays on top of which were small foil rectangles of silver. Silver, the metal. Waiters served each guest a sheet of foil, and then, following our hosts, we put the silver on our tongues, savored, chewed, and swallowed. Silver is not tasty--not a dessert metal, really. But eating it causes your awareness to expand, as the implications proliferate and ricochet around in your brain. You register each second of the experience; you think, "I'm eating silver!"

Eating mayflies is a lot like that for me. Say that I find a small, newly hatched mayfly floating down the Bitterroot River in Montana. I lift it from the surface tension with the ball of my finger. As it tries to fit its filament-fine legs among the whorls of my fingerprint, I identify it as the Blue-winged Olive, Ephemerella flavilinea. Its name alone is prettier than silver. Its wings are a semigloss, cigarette-smoke bluish gray, a color mentally delicious in itself. In my mouth, its actual taste is tiny but real, and its resistance to teeth and tongue less than a single egg of caviar. I'm part of a group that includes John the Baptist and paleo-Indians and the Snakes of the Rockies. Like the ancients, I'm taking what the wilderness provides. I'm eating bugs, just as natural as can be.

Ian Frazier's most recent books are Family and Coyote vs. Acme. He lives in Montana.

Photographs by David Sacks

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