Outside magazine, April 1997
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.
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.
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.
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!"
Ian Frazier's most recent books are Family and Coyote vs. Acme. He lives in Montana.
Photographs by David Sacks
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