This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
Several Insects which are edible (themselves, or their products), whilst exercising certain curative virtues, may be briefly considered here. A more detailed attention has been already devoted to them in Animal Simples. "These ye may eat," said Moses the wise lawgiver to the Israelites of old, "the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind".
The common Honey Bee, besides affording the mel which confers its name (Apis mellifica), supplies, by its sting-venom, in the Hum, or bee-beer of cottagers, a medicament of potential excellence (see Honey). Likewise our well-known Wasp (Vespa) can furnish, as Vincent Holt graphically tells, an equally delicious savoury to that of the Honey bee; "the saccharine fluid with which wasps feed their infant grubs is entirely composed of vegetable juices drawn from ripe fruits, and flowers. Let us then welcome among our choice dishes wasp grubs baked in the comb".
Caterpillars," says M. Dagin, a French entomologist, who has recently been making exhaustive experiments with regard to esculent insects, "having personally eaten some hundreds of species, raw, broiled, boiled, fried, roasted, and hashed, I find most of these pleasant to taste, light, and digestible." From some he has concocted in Praed's Poem.
"A capital stew, with spices and sherry, - Like the Boniface Mayor of St. Edmonsbury".
But the despised Cockroach, or Black Beetle, of our kitchens is what M. Dagin waxes most enthusiastic over. "Pounded in a mortar, put through a sieve, and poured into beef stock, these creatures make a soup preferable to bisque." Nevertheless, a Chinese proverb runs to the effect, "If your stomach is delicate, abstain from the Cockroach." And after all there is not any more valid reason to urge against eating cockroaches than against taking shrimps with tea, after the popular practice of Margate. These latter, if fried in their' shells, just as they leave the sea, have proved delicious, like white-bait, and richer, whilst the shells do not become hardened as by boiling. For curative purposes the Cockroach has long been employed against dropsy by Russian doctors, likewise for Bright's disease of the kidneys; and one of our leading chemists now prepares powdered Cockroaches for similar therapeutic uses in this country. The insect is nocturnal in its habits, and gives off a disagreeable, fetid odour through a fluid poured out from its mouth.
Another class of insects, the Spiders, though never taken a? food in any form, exercise healing virtues against ague, whilst the applied web avails to arrest bleedings; these are established facts. Messrs Kirby & Spence do not hesitate to declare that if one could rise above prejudices, he would probably find some spiders a delicious morsel as dainty food. The celebrated Anna Maria Schurman used to eat spiders like nuts, which, as she affirmed, they much resemble in taste. Rosel also speaks of a German who was in the habit of spreading spiders like butter on his bread. But such practices are open to question as regards their wholesomeness, seeing that spiders are carnivorous feeders.
As the basis of all their bodily structures, spiral tubes, intestines, skeleton, hairs, and external scales, insects are endowed with chitin (which forms also the bodily framework, and skeleton of crabs, lobsters, and shrimps, with other crustaceae). It was this animal substance in locusts which, with wild honey, constituted the food of John the Baptist. But such chitin is more difficult of digestion than the corresponding gelatin of beef, mutton, fish, and poultry; so that the nightmare which proverbially follows a lobster supper in close attendance thereon, is probably attributable to this difficulty of chitin solution in the stomach. In Othdlo, Act 1, Sc. 3, we read "The food that to him is now as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as Coloquintida," (Iago to Roderigo). And here probably the food of the Locust-tree was referred to, of which the seed-pod contains a rich luscious juice closely resembling fresh honey. So, with respect to the Locusts upon which John the Baptist supported himself in the wilderness, certain critics have chosen to believe they were of vegetable nature, as cassia pods. But this is not so.
Almost every traveller of note has told how the Locust insects are enjoyed as food in the East. Pliny records this fact, and Herodotus describes the mode adopted of powdering Locusts for baking them into cakes. Sometimes they are merely fried, their legs and wings plucked off, and the bodies eaten, flavoured with pepper and salt; other persons powder and bake them; or again, they are boiled, turning red after the fashion of lobsters, during the process. In India, like every other article of food, they are curried. At Tonquin these insects are sold in the market as a great delicacy. Mattieu Williams advises that the introduction of Locusts fried, and tinned, as an epicurean delicacy, would be a boon to suffering humanity, by supplying industrial employment to the inhabitants of districts subject to periodical invasions by swarms of locusts, amounting to a plague by their devastations. The notion of eating them appears repulsive at first, but chitin is chitin, whether elaborated on land, or secreted in the sea. The vegetarian Locust, and the cicada (grasshopper) are free from the pungent essential oils of the really unpleasant cockchafer. Though, concerning this latter insect, Melolontha vulgaris, (the fat chafer) as food, Vincent Holt quotes the jaunty rooks as excellent judges.
Lalande, the French astronomer, found that caterpillars tasted of almonds, and that spiders had a nutty flavour. By the Congress of Entomologists held at Paris, in 1887, it was solemnly proclaimed that cockchafers, at least when young, are a "perfect food," if their preparation be rightly understood. The recipe which was then drawn up for "Cockchafer Soup" ran as follows:-"Take a sufficient number of cockchafers, pound them in a mortar, then strain them through a sieve. For a light clear soup use water; for a thick ditto add fat. In both cases the result is delicious, and calculated to please the most fastidious of gourmets".
Anyhow, be their culinary and curative uses what they may, we all owe much of our outward welfare to the insect world; and it were well for us if we might minister to the happiness of our neighbours at large as abundantly as insects subserve our enjoyment of nature around us. The insect is the prince of gardeners. His buttercup, his dandelion, and his meadowsweet grow thick in every English field; his thyme clothes the hillside; his heather purples the bleak, grey moorland; high up among the Alpine heights his gentian spreads its lakes of blue; amid the snows of the Himalayas his rhododendrons gleam with crimson light. The Insect has thus turned the whole surface of the Earth into a boundless flower garden. Not but that certain animosities arise between plants, and their fertilizing visitors, of the obnoxious insect sort. "Our gearden," says the peasant of Devonian speech, "be awver rinned wi' veathervaw (feather-few), but I dawn't mind much, vur tez cabbical stuff tu rub intu tha chillern's necks night times tu keep away tha vleys." The white ant is eaten with avidity by the natives of Hindustan, and the giant red ant is as eagerly devoured by the people of Guiana and Brazil. The flavour of these ants is saccharine, and slightly acidulous. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise".
But with respect to the common ant as an example of vigilant foresight, and provident care, giving timely precepts to the sluggard, this insect actually lays up no store at all of food for the winter, though so often quoted as a model of industrious economy. It is not only one of the sleepiest creatures (in cold weather), but even furnishes formic acid, as a constituent basis of chloroform, which serves to steep the senses in forgetfulness. The ancient Greeks were acquainted with the drowsy properties of ants, and they availed themselves thereof as hypnotics.