Grasshoppers and crickets and their relatives have played an important role in the history of human nutrition. Because they are universally distributed and easy to catch, they are among the most common insects used for human food. Roasting and sauteing are frequently used methods of cooking, after first removing the wings and small legs. Because they have a mild flavor, they adapt well to local preferences for seasoning. Seasonings such as onion, garlic, cayenne, hot pepper, or soy sauce may be added. Candied grasshoppers, known as inago, are a favorite cocktail snack in Japan.
Locusts are the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. These are species that can breed rapidly under suitable conditions and subsequently become gregarious (i.e., living in flocks) and migratory. They form bands as nymphs and swarms as adults–both of which can travel great distances as a plague, laying waste to the countryside like Sherman through Georgia.
Among grasshoppers, there are 10 families, and these represent about 60 percent of the edible resource among Orthoptera worldwide. Grasshoppers are the most-eaten type of insect because of their wide distribution, many and diverse species, and the ease of harvesting them. They come in all colors, often having to do with their habitat, from green to brown to gray to pink and yellow and all shades in between. Most turn an attractive red when they are boiled or fried, which has led to their being promoted in Thailand as “sky prawns.” As kids in the Pacific Northwest, we would chase the big three-inch grasshoppers that had a noisy clacking flight; remove their legs, wings, and head; and boil them in pumpkin pie spice like we did crawdads. They have a mild flavor that takes seasoning well and are good wilderness fare simply roasted over a fire. We dressed them the same way, boiled them in salt water, and strung them in garlands in the smokehouse when we were smoking smelt, and they were delicious. Once crunchy dry, they kept for a year in a sealed jar.
Although grasshoppers were used extensively as food by Native American tribes in western North America, little is known about which species were preferred–if there was a preference. A smallscale way of harvesting the insects was for a number of people to form a large circle around a large bed of coals and then drive them toward the fire, where at least some would lose their wings, drop, and be roasted. As there are usually several species of range grasshoppers present at any one time and location, probably any roasted grasshopper was fair game.
Missionaries of the 1800s recorded that one mass-harvest technique common to several tribes was a simple drive. They’d dig a pit 10-12 feet in diameter and 4-5 feet deep in the center of a 4-5 acre field. Surrounding the field with men with long brush beaters, they’d drive the grasshoppers to the center, where they fell into the pit. Often, a 3-4 acre drive would fill such a hole. A variation of this, similar to the small-scale harvest above, was to build a light brush fire covering 20 to 30 square feet. The people then formed a large circle around it and drove the grasshoppers onto the hot coals. Sometimes a field was simply set afire, and the scorched grasshoppers were picked up afterward. Or, as in the case of Mormon crickets, grasshoppers could be collected by hand in the early morning, when they were too cold to be active. Pulverized grasshoppers were often mixed with serviceberries and hard-dried for a long-lasting pemmican– a trade good staple among various tribes.
Spring 1985 saw uncountable numbers of the migratory grasshopper Melanoplus sanguinipes wash up on the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Researcher Dave Madsen noted that “neat rows of salted and sun-dried grasshoppers stretched for miles along the beach,” with the widest rows ranging up to more than six feet in width and nine inches deep and containing up to 10,000 grasshoppers per foot. Madsen’s team found that one person could collect some 200 pounds an hour, or 273,000 calories per hour of work: deer or antelope, assuming a successful hunt, return about 25,000 calories per hour of work invested. The team subsequently found nearby caves where natives had come to harvest and winnow the sand from these readymade, seasonal delicacies, and according to the coprolite in the caves, they snacked as they worked.
Although a worldwide staple, grasshoppers, in particular, can carry several parasitic worms that can be passed to humans, so roasting or boiling is important for more than taste–just as with storebought eggs and chicken. In a domestic setting, grasshoppers are often captured and kept for a day to purge before being dressed and prepared, but they still must be cooked.
Because of their mild taste that goes with any seasoning, and because of their wide use as food, recipes abound. Most start with fresh insects that have been boiled and dressed, or dried/roasted stock reconstituted by boiling. One of the easiest recipes is to dip them in egg and then corn flour and fry them in oil. Drained, they make good finger food with many dips or, with a nod to John the Baptist, dipped in honey.
If your tastes run to Tex-Mex cooking, try this: get about a thousand small grasshoppers, soak in clean water for 24 hours, and then boil and dry. Remove legs, wings, and heads, and fry with minced garlic, onion, salt, and lemon. Roll up in tortillas with chili sauce and guacamole. Serves six stalwarts, or about double that number of dilettantes. Among the favorite seasonings for grasshoppers is plain soy sauce or sweet-and-sour sauces with soy.
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Reprinted from Surviving on Edible Insects by Fred Demara with permission from Ogden Publications.