Why Not Eat Insects?

Vincent M. Holt. E. W. Classey, Ltd. 1885. 99 pp. Reprinted 1988 with an introduction by Lawrence Mound. British Museum (Natural History), Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD. (Paperback, price £3.95; available in the U.S. from International Specialized Book Services, 5602 NE Hassalo St., Suite 45, Portland, OR 97213, $7.95 plus $2.50 for shipping.)

In the introduction of this reprint, 100 years after the original printing, Lawrence Mound, the Keeper of Entomology at the British Museum (Natural History) suggests that “Why Not Eat Insects? is not just a fascinating Victorian book, full of humour and ideas, it is also an interesting – indeed, profound – question about human behaviour.” Mound observes that food habits in Britain are increasingly adventurous, and “perhaps the time is now ripe for insectivory to invade Chelsea. . .”

Vincent Holt is extraordinarily forthright in his promotion of insects as food. The title of his little book puts the question bluntly, “Why Not Eat Insects?” Then, he summarizes the reasons for eating insects. The herbivorous insects (the only ones he recommends) are clean-feeding compared to the lobster, crab, eel, and pig; “The lobster, a creature consumed in incredible quantities at all the highest tables in the land, is such a foul feeder that, for its sure capture, the experienced fisherman will bait his lobster-pot with putrid flesh or fish which is too far gone even to attract a crab” (p. 12). Relative to aesthetic appearance, Holt says (pp. 18- 19), “As things are now, the chance caterpillar which, having escaped the careful eye of the scullery-maid, is boiled among the close folds of the cabbage, quite spoils the dinner appetite of the person who happens to receive it with his helping of vegetable, and its loathsome (?) form is carefully hidden at the side of his plate or sent straight out of the room, so that its unwonted presence may no further nauseate the diners. Yet probably these same diners have, at the commencement of the meal, hailed with inward satisfaction the presence on the board of dozens of more loathsome-looking oysters, and have actually swallowed perhaps a dozen of them raw and living as quite an appetizer for their dinner!” Frustration shows on pp. 16-17: “It may require a strong effort of will to reason ourselves out of the stupid prejudices that have stood in our way for ages; but what is the good of the advanced state of the times if we cannot thus cast aside these prejudices just as we have caused to vanish before the ever-advancing tide of knowledge the worn out theories of spontaneous generation and barnacle geese?” A few pages later (pp. 29-30): “Fashion is the most powerful motive in the world. Why does not some one in a high place set the common-sense fashion of adding insect dishes to our tables? The flock would not be long in following.” Holt states that chemical analyses indicate that insects

are nourishing and suggests (p. 15) that farmers could be aided in their battle against insect pests if the insects were collected by the poor as food (not that he suggests the poor could live entirely on insects). After calling attention to the consumption of insects by the Greeks and Romans of yore and by people in far-away lands, Holt concludes the second of his three chapters as follows (p. 47): “We pride ourselves upon our imitation of the Greeks and Romans in their arts; we treasure their dead languages: why not, then, take a useful hint from their tables? We imitate the savage nations in their use of numberless drugs, spices, and condiments: why not go a step further?”

In the final chapter, Holt mentions a number of insects in Britain that would be suitable for the table. Relative to the Orthoptera, he relates the following: “The Rev. R. Sheppard, many years ago, had some of our common large grasshoppers served up at his table, according to the recipe used by the inhabitants of Morocco in the cooking of their favorite locusts. Here it is. ‘Having plucked off their heads, legs, and wings, sprinkle them with pepper and salt and chopped parsley, fry in butter, and add some vinegar.’ He found them excellent. From personal experiment I can fully endorse his opinion; and there are few who would not, if they would but try this dish …. The above recipe is simple; but any one with a knowledge of cookery would know how to improve upon it, producing from this source such dishes, say, as ‘Grasshoppers au gratin,’ or ‘Acridae sautes a la Maitre d’Hotel.”‘

From among the Coleoptera, Holt mentions in particular the grub of the stag beetle, Lucanus cervus, and the larva and adult of the common cockchafer, Melolontha vulgaris Mentioning the pest importance of the latter, he states, “Literally tooth and nail we ought to battle with this enemy, for in both its stages it is a most dainty morsel for the table. . . . Again I endorse from personal experience. Try them as I have; they are delicious. Cockchafers are not only common, but of a most serviceable size and plumpness, while their grubs are, when full grown, at least two inches in length, and fat in proportion…. What a godsend to housekeepers to discover a new entre to vary the monotony of the present round! … Here then, mistresses, who thirst to place new and dainty dishes before your guests, what better could you have than ‘Curried Maychafers’ – or, if you want a more mysterious title, ‘Larvae Melolonthae a la Grugru?”‘

Edible Insects of the World

Jun Mitsuhashi. Publisher: Kokinshoin, Kanda-S urugadai 210, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101. 1984. 270 pp. (In Japanese, hardcover, price – yen 2,000)

When Dr. Mitsuhashi’s book was outlined in the July 1988 Newsletter, the publisher and price were not known.