Lyrical, humourous, surprising, enlightening and thought-provoking by turns, "Unlearn, Rewild" will make you question what it means to be civilized. From edible insects to feral food preservation, Miles Olson offers radical sustainability skills and ideas for an uncertain future.
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
Picture a world where human exists, like all other things, in balance. Where there is not separation between “human” and “wild.” Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson (New Society Publishers, 2012) blends philosophy with a detailed introduction to a rich assortment of endangered traditional living skills. In this excerpt, Olson introduces bugs as food and offers a short list of edible insects.
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A Handful of Edible Insects
Where I live there are definitely edible insects, but not in the same variation and abundance as other bioregions. I’ve read accounts of Paiute food gatherers burning a field of grass to expose (and roast) large quantities of grasshoppers, and indigenous Peruvians harvesting large amounts of edible tarantulas (with large, fatty butts) from caves. The insects I mention here are widely distributed, but perhaps where you live there is an abundance of a certain edible species specific to that area? It’s worth looking into.
1. Eating Ants
Ants are the first wild animal I ever killed and ate, at the age of four. Most ant species are edible, their flavor is pleasantly sour. This is because ants secrete an acid when threatened, giving them a vinegar-like flavor. In Colombia ants are roasted with salt (crunchy salt-and-vinegar ants!) and eaten at feasts. The queen ants are preferred there, having big juicy butts (more fat). In Colombian folk culture, queen ants are said to boost libido.
Ant larvae are also fantastic, having no sour flavor. They can often be found in clumps under rocks, or on top of anthills when they are being moved or kept warm.
To harvest ants, one can put a stick on an anthill, wait for it to get covered with ants, then shake it off into a container. A lid on the container will suffocate them, but this death may allow them to secrete more acid. Roasting them right away will kill them more quickly and prevent this.
2. Eating Slugs
Slugs — food? Yes, slugs are edible and, if anything like their cousin, the snail, highly nutritious (somehow nobody has done a study on their nutrient content yet). They are not insects, but come close enough (being small and crawly) to make an appearance here. Every gardener knows how abundant a food source slugs are for the warm, wet months of the year. While there are no mysteries to reveal about harvesting slugs, there are a few things you should know about preparing them.
Slugs (and snails) are host to a potentially dangerous parasite called the rat lungworm. They contract this parasite by eating the feces of infected rodents. If a human eats raw snail or slug, these parasites will not live in their body, but it can produce a toxic reaction called eosinophilic meningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, a sheath surrounding the brain, and can cause severe brain damage. How do we avoid this and still eat snails and slugs? Cook them! It’s as simple as that.
Slugs also sometimes eat things we can’t — toxic plants and fungi, poo, etc., so the traditional method of preparing them for the table has been to purge their digestive system. For escargots this is done by putting snails in a container with corn- meal, oats or some other bland starch for a week, so they poop out anything that might be offensive and fatten up on grain. I’ve never had the heart to do this. For slugs I think it makes most sense to simply gut them and skip the whole purging process. To gut, kill the slug by chopping its head off, then simply squeeze out the entrails. The slug will shrink considerably, and you will get slime on your hands.
How to cook them? Chopped up in a stew is a pretty good option, or roasted over the fire or chopped, marinated and sautéed — experiment!
3. Eating Snails
Snails of course have a rich and continuous tradition as food, the famed French escargots being a dish most of us are familiar with, whether or not we have consumed it. The common gar- den snail was introduced from Europe as a food source. All of the above cautions around eating slugs raw apply to snails, which, as mentioned above, have typically been purged and fattened on grain (cornmeal, oats) for a period of one to two weeks before consumption. Snails do not seem to be as merdiverous as slugs (they don’t eat as much shit), though they may still consume vegetation or fungi toxic to humans. To en- sure snails are safe to eat, steam them and remove from the shell, then slit up the belly and remove the cooked entrails. Or you could purge them for a couple of days in a container with some food they like — vegetation, aspen bark or the traditional grain feed. If you know the area you are harvesting them from is not host to any toxic plants and feel confident in this, you can opt to not worry about it.
Snails are abundant in spring and can often be found in good numbers where they have a good food source. The usual method of preparation is to steam them five to ten minutes, remove from the shell and sauté. They are quite tasty, though if you leave the guts in and they have been eating bark (one of their favorite foods), they will have some astringent flavor.
4. Eating Crickets
Inhabitants of open meadows, grassland, fields and some forests, crickets also have a continuous tradition as human food. They are sold by the pound, dried, in Mexican markets and fried or roasted before eating. Crickets are excellent pan-fried or oven toasted, with a bit of oil and salt if you like. The legs can be removed before eating as they are sometimes irritating. They can also be dried and stored for future use.
A simple trap for crickets a friend raised in Mazatlan shared with me can be set with nothing other than a Mason jar and some bait. Dig a small hole in the ground of a cricket-inhabited area, put the jar into this hole and move the soil back into place around it or simply put the jar on its side on the ground. A piece of bait is then placed in the jar (a slice of apple, oats, bread, carrot, lettuce, a bit of stale beer, try what you have). In the morning there should be some crickets enjoying themselves in there. Put the lid on the jar, with holes poked in if you want to keep them alive, and without if you want them to die.
As a variation, put water in the jar along with the bait and the crickets will drown. Often people use a solution of molasses and water or stale beer for this; other sweeteners or foods mixed with water may also work.
5. Eating Grasshoppers
Grasshoppers inhabit similar terrain to the cricket and are similarly prepared and esteemed. They can be harvested by hand in the early morning before they are fully awake, using the same type of traps as described above for crickets, or using more ambitious methods.
In modern-day Uganda, there is a booming trade in grasshoppers; locals set up extensive grasshopper traps using tall, standing sheets of galvanized tin roofing, their ends stuffed into old oil drums and powerful lights shining on them at night. With the tin roofing reflecting light into the darkness, grasshoppers are attracted en masse to them, land on the upright, glowing roofing and slide into the old oil drums where they are captured.
I have friends that took part in a large grasshopper harvest in which a group of people holding hands formed a human wall and walked across a field of tall grass, herding grasshoppers into a tarp on the other end of the field. A good method to try if you have enough people.
A Mexican study recently compared the insect management strategies of several farms. Some of them used modern insecticides, others allowed locals to harvest grasshoppers for local markets. The two methods were equally effective in controlling grasshoppers, but one approach required money and poisoned the land, water and food being grown, while the other avoided those costs, providing healthy wild food and income.
6. Eating Earthworms
Earthworms are highly nutritious, and, believe it or not, an invasive species introduced to the Americas from Europe.
Worms often come out en masse during heavy rains when the soil becomes so saturated with water they need to get out or drown. I have seen holes dug for fence posts in clay soil filled with water after a heavy rain, and the bodies of countless drowned worms. Doing this intentionally would be a way of trapping them.
Their bodies are filled with dirt, which can make worms sandy and unpleasant to eat. This dirt can be removed by pur ing (soaking them in water for 3–24 hours) or taking a worm in one hand and squeezing the dirt out of it with your free hand’s fingers. After purging, their flavor can be a little bitter — not bad, but bitter. Drying them mellows this flavor; incorporating them into various dishes helps as well. They can be added to stirfries, stews, anywhere your imagination wanders. Frying worms until crispy offsets their squiggliness, drying reduces their sliminess, making them more palatable.
7. Eating Maggots
Yes, not only are maggots edible, they are a traditional superfood. They are also probably the most revolting insect one could imagine.
Traditionally, many cultures have relished maggots, leaving fish or meat out to become saturated with them and then eating the maggots raw. There is logic to this: a diet of exclusively lean meat causes severe health problems, eventually leading to kidney failure and death. This condition has traditionally been called “rabbit starvation.” White trappers living in the north would often be afflicted as they attempted to live entirely off lean meat like rabbit, easily trapped in the northern forests, without sufficient fat or carbohydrates to balance the protein. They would get a kind of protein poisoning, diarrhea and malnutrition would ensue, and despite eating as much lean meat as possible, they would “starve” to death.
What does this have to do with maggots? They are capable of transforming lean meat into fat. Maggots are extremely fatty and a rich source of essential amino acids, making them nutritionally far more valuable than lean meat.
They don’t have internal digestive systems of their own, so they secrete gastric juices directly onto meat, causing it to degrade or spoil (or “predigest” if you have a taste for it). That is why there is so much hysteria around maggots on meat, not because they make it unsafe to consume, but because they alter its flavor, texture and palatable shelf life.
Maggots will taste different depending on their food source. I have harvested them from meat that was left hanging for a bit too long, thrown them in a pan and fried them up. If they were on a rotting carcass with the guts and all still intact, they would have a stronger flavor. In any case, they are an acquired taste probably well worth acquiring. Their ability to transform lean meat into essential fats is both magical and potentially life-saving under certain conditions.
Someone once told me their grandfather, during the Depression of the 1930s, would take maggots that grew on a hunk of meat he kept in the cellar and spread them on toast like butter.
8. Eating Aphids
Aphids are another edible insect.. Depending on what foliage they are feeding on, they can range from slightly bitter to sweet. Upon finding an infested plant or patch of plants, simply collect the aphids and eat them fresh or incorporate them into a meal as a nutritious supplement.
9. Eating Termites
These little ones are another big player in traditional human cuisines. I have harvested them individually or in small groups and then toasted them in a hot pan. They have a high oil content relative to the size of their body and are quite tasty, with a slightly nutty flavor. Those with wings (called alates) are larger and fattier. In many areas where these alates are prolific, they are harvested using a lamp with netting around it. They are attracted to the light and will collect on the netting. The wings are shed easily, which you may have noticed if one has ever landed on you, and can be removed by winnowing after they have been toasted. A candle next to a mirror at dusk at the right time of year can yield some fantastic snacking. In old wooden homes infested with termites, this may be an excellent coping strategy. Sitting around with a friend and talking on the porch at sunset while catching some food in the warm summer night can be quite delightful.
10. Eating Sowbugs
Sow bugs, also known as pillbugs and rolly pollies, are those little grey, pill-shaped mini-shrimp that you find when you lift up a rotten piece of wood, rock or anything that has been sitting on soil for a while. They are another nutritious bug to know, and are tastiest toasted and eaten crispy, though in a pinch you can eat them fresh.
11. Eating Earwigs
Earwigs are edible and tasty too. Prepare them the same as termites or sowbugs. A couple of tactics for gathering them come from gardeners who disdain these little fellas.
Fill low-sided cans with a half inch of vegetable oil (or other liquid, food-grade oil) and place them on the ground. Earwigs will find their way in and drown. Or, alternatively, a beer bottle with a bit of stale beer left in it will attract earwigs. Strain, toast and serve.
All these species are just the tip of the iceberg in this field. So many insects are edible (cockroaches, many beetles, moth larvae, wasps, bees, scorpions and spiders — with their venom glands or stingers removed) — that to cover them sufficiently would be a book unto itself. As we connect more deeply to the land, and as we come to depend on it more directly for our subsistence and survival, seeing these little ones as food may help us immensely.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson, published by New Society Publishers, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Unlearn, Rewild.