The Garden Gate: Americans not tempted to eat what bugs them

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

We Americans are the unusual ones in terms of eating insects. It’s a standard thing in other countries. A recent survey in Nigeria found that about seven out of 10 people ate caterpillars.

Dry-roasted queen ants are served at cocktail parties in Colombia, and roasted grasshoppers can be found in the gourmét frozen-food aisles of supermarkets in Japan.

There are, however, a few exceptions to the general custom of insect eating in this country. Washington, D.C., once had a restaurant/night club called the Insect Club. The décor was entirely in keeping with the theme, with spiderweb lighting fixtures,  a termite-mound entrance and table centerpieces with glass globes filled with scorpions and tarantulas. The New York Entomology Society had a formal banquet there every year. Dessert was frequently chocolate cricket torte.

In the Insect Club’s archives is recorded a famous 1992 formal dinner hosted by the Entomological Society in celebration of its 100th anniversary. The menu for this occasion included roasted Australian grubs, sautéed Thai water bugs and mealworm ganoush.

It depends on your point of view: What is regarded as a delicacy in some countries is viewed with horror in others.

Insects were considered delicacies in ancient times. A kind of wood-boring grub was often served as an hors d’oeuvre  at parties in ancient Rome. Aristotle was a great cicada fancier, and he wrote at length about how to prepare them.

Apicius, who wrote the most famous cookbook in the ancient world, devoted a whole section of recipes to bugs and worms of various kinds.

Companies that raise and sell bugs primarily for use in pet shops and bait stores are seeing more culinary orders these days as a small but growing trend toward eating insects is apparently increasing.

Snails, sometimes called escargot, are a recognized culinary delicacy. Served with a garlic and butter sauce, they are eaten with very small forks directly from their shells.

Many defenders of entomophagy, or insect eating, raise the point that we Americans eat lobster, crayfish and shrimp in great quantities. And all of these resemble insects with multiple legs, antennae and exoskeletons.

Where there are apples and pears ripening in the garden you’ll usually find wasps, which love the sticky juice. Although insect stings are no fun — and are sometimes serious for people who are allergic to them — these unpopular garden insects are not all bad. They eat some of the other insects that populate the garden. We may not want to eat wasps, but we can be grateful to them for their own culinary habits.

Wasps and their relatives, the bees, do more good than harm. The bee, for example, produces honey and pollinates fruit, vegetable and other plants. The wasp, on the other hand, eats only other insects.

Members of the wasp family include hornets, yellow jackets, mud daubers and cicada killers. They all munch on caterpillars, house flies, blow flies and mosquitoes.

Foraging wasps, hornets and yellow jackets hunt and kill a great variety of destructive insects. They should be appreciated as allies of the gardener, who most likely prefers to regard them in that light rather than as an edible commodity.

We are much more cordial to other small-winged creatures, namely butterflies and moths. Butterflies prefer flat-topped blossoms upon which they can rest while sipping nectar in comfort. They are a decorative asset to any garden, and there are many varieties of them.

Butterflies are useful in pollinating plants. They are especially attracted to purple flowers. If you want to encourage butterflies in your garden, you might want to plant a butterfly bush, Buddleia, a semi-hard shrub which inevitable attracts these little “flying flowers.”

Andy Snider, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the world-renowned Detroit Zoo, serves up more insects as food than almost anyone you could think of.

He orders 12,000 mealworms at a time for his charges and dusts the crickets with vitamin powders before he feeds them to the spine-tailed iguana, marine toads and the like.

His answer when he was asked if he would like to eat them, too: “No. I can dish them out but not take them myself.”

Perhaps he spoke for the majority of us, too.

One might be reminded of the child who came into the house with smears of dirt all around his mouth. When his mother inquired about it, he replied, “I found a big worm in the garden, and I ate it.”

No wonder he grew up to be a vegetarian.

Do they still make those long-popular confections called Gummy Worms?

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.