There is a small fly (Hydropyrus hians), belonging to
the group known as "shore flies" (Diptera: Ephydridae), that formerly bred in
vast numbers in the alkaline waters of Mono Lake and other alkaline lakes in the
California-Nevada border region. It was called kutsavi (or variations thereof)
by the Paiute and other tribes. The fly pupae washed ashore in long windrows. J.
Ross Brownel, who visited Mono Lake in about 1865, told of
encountering a deposit of pupae about two feet deep and three or four feet wide
that extended "like a vast rim" around the lake:
"I saw no end to it during a walk of several miles along the beach . . . . It
would appear that the worms [read fly pupae], as soon as they attain locomotion,
creep up from the water, or are deposited on the beach by the waves during some
of those violent gales which prevail in this region. The Mono Indians derive
from them a fruitful source of subsistence. By drying them in the sun and mixing
them with acorns, berries, grass-seeds, and other articles of food gathered up
in the mountains, they make a conglomerate called cuchaba, which they use as a
kind of bread. I am told it is very nutritious and not at all unpalatable. The
worms are also eaten in their natural condition. It is considered a delicacy to
fry them in their own grease. When properly prepared by a skillful cook they
resemble pork 'cracklings.' I was not hungry enough to require one of these
dishes during my sojourn, but would recommend any friend who may visit the lake
to eat a pound or two and let me know the result at his earliest convenience
.... There must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of tons of these oleaginous
insects cast up on the beach every year. There is no danger of starvation on the
shores of Mono. The inhabitants may be snowed in, flooded out, or cut off by
aboriginal hordes, but they can always rely upon the beach for fat meat."
William Brewer2, a professor of agriculture, had sampled kutsavi
during a visit to Mono Lake in 1863. Noting that hundreds of bushels could be
collected, he wrote:
"The Indians come far and near to gather them . The worms are dried in the sun,
the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernal remains, like a small yellow grain
of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste, and
under the name of koo-chah-bee forms a very important article of food. The
Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its
origin, it would make fine soup. Gulls, ducks, snipe, frogs, and Indians fatten
Somewhat earlier, in 1845, Captain John C. Fremont3 was impressed
with a windrow of kutsavi which he described as 10-20 feet in breadth and 7- 12
inches deep. Fremont related an experience told to him by an old hunter, Mr.
Joseph Walker. Walker and his men had surprised a party of several Indian
families encamped near a small lake who had abandoned their lodges at his
approach, leaving everything behind them:
"Being in a starving condition, they were delighted to find in the abandoned
lodges a number of skin bags, containing a quantity of what appeared to be fish,
dried and pounded. On this they made a hearty supper; and were gathering around
an abundant breakfast the next morning, when Mr. Walker discovered that it was
with these, or a similar worm, that the bags had been filled. The stomachs of
the stout trappers were not proof against their prejudices, and the repulsive
food was suddenly rejected."
The Mormon cricket, Anabrus simplex (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae), was another
important insect food of the Indians, all over the West. It is not really a
cricket, being more closely related to katydids. It is a large insect, about two
inches in length, wingless, and it travels in large, dense bands. Bands may be
more than a mile wide and several miles long, and with 20-30 or more crickets
per square yard. It is sometimes damaging to crops or range vegetation and has
been a pest target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture since before the turn
of the century. Major Howard Egan4 described, in his delightful
first-person style, a Mormon cricket drive that took place in about 1850. The
procedure was basically to dig a series of trenches, each about 30 to 40 feet
long and in the shape of a new moon, cover the trenches with a thin layer of
stiff wheat grass straw, drive the crickets into the grass covering the
trenches, and then set fire to the grass. As the drive began, Egan thought the
Indians were going to a great deal of trouble for a few crickets: "We followed
them on horseback and I noticed that there were but very few crickets left
behind. As they went down, the line of crickets grew thicker and thicker till
the ground ahead of the drivers [men, women and children] was black as coal with
the excited, tumbling mass of crickets." After the grass had been fired, Egan
observed that in some places the trenches were more than half full of dead
crickets: "I went down below the trenches and I venture to say there were not
one out of a thousand crickets that passed those trenches."
Once the drive was over, the men and children had done their part and were
sitting around while the women gathered the catch into large baskets which could
be carried on their backs. We should remember that this was long before the days
of the women's' movement, as Egan says, in obvious admiration:
"Now here is what I saw a squaw doing that had a small baby strapped to a board
or a willow frame, which she carried on her back with a strap over her forehead:
When at work she would stand or lay the frame and kid where she could see it at
any time. She soon had a large basket as full as she could crowd with crickets.
Laying it down near the kid, she took a smaller basket and filled it. I should
judge she had over four bushels of the catch. But wait, the Indians were leaving
for their camp about three or four miles away. This squaw sat down beside the
larger basket, put the band over her shoulders, got on her feet with it, then
took the strapped kid and placed him on top, face up, picked up the other basket
and followed her lord and master, who tramped ahead with nothing to carry except
his own lazy carcass. There were bushels of crickets left in the trenches, which
I suppose they would gather later in the day."
Egan learned that the crickets were used to make a bread that was very dark in
color. They were dried, then ground on the same mill used to grind pine nuts or
grass seed, "making a fine flour that will keep a long time, if kept dry" (this
was often referred to as "desert fruitcake" by early settlers). Egan's Indian
companion told him "the crickets make the bread good, the same as sugar used by
the white woman in her cakes."
There were other efficient methods of harvesting Mormon crickets. One of them
was to drive the crickets into a stream, circa 1864. as described in the journal
of Perter Gottfredson5: "The squaws [placed] baskets in the ditch for
the crickets to float into. The male Indians with long willows strung along
about twenty feet apart whipping the ground behind the crickets driving them
towards the ditch .... [The crickets] tumbled into the ditch and floated down
into the baskets . . . . They got more than 50 bushels." In this instance,
service berries and wild currants were mixed with the crickets to form the
loaves of bread. In a similar account of floating the crickets into baskets,
John Young states that they were caught by the tons.
Another method was to simply scoop up the crickets by the bushel when they were
clustered under vegetation and too cold to be active. Beatrice Whiting6
wrote of the Paiute: "The women went out early in the morning and caught them,
were back by sunrise, and spent the rest of the day roasting, drying, and
pounding them and putting them in bags to be cached for the winter."
There are few first-hand assessments of the flavor of Mormon crickets by early
whites, for reasons that are apparent from the following excerpt from the
reminiscences of Captain Joseph Aram7 who was in the Humboldt Sink in
1846: "We came to an Indian village, they came out in strong force but finding
us friendly, they treated us kindly. They were digging roots on a creek bottom.
They looked like a small red carrot. They gave us some that were cooked, they
tasted like a sweet potato. They also offered us some dried crickets but those
were declined, thinking they would not relish well with us." According to a
modem account of the Honey Lake Paiute (Lassen County, California) by F. A.
Riddell8, when Mormon crickets were made into a soup, the flavor was
somewhat like that of dried deer meat.
A certain species of aphid even provided the Indians with sugar--in the form of
the sweet honeydew it secreted. In the early Mission records of California, Pere
Picola wrote in 1702: "In the months of April, May and June there falls with the
dew a kind of manna, which solidifies and hardens on the leaves of reeds from
which it is collected. I have tasted some. It is a little less white than sugar,
but has all the sweetness of it." Some of the Fathers considered this "manna" a
dispensation from Heaven.
John Bidwell9, a pioneer in the Humboldt Sink area in 1841, looked at
the "manna" with a more discerning eye: "We saw many Indians on the Humboldt,
especially towards the sink. There were many Tule marshes. The tule is a rush,
large, but here not very tall. It was generally completely covered with
honeydew, and this in turn was wholly covered with a pediculous-looking
[louse-like] insect which fed upon it. The Indians gathered quantities of the
honey and pressed it into balls about the size of one's fist, having the
appearance of wet bran. At first we greatly relished this Indian food, but when
we saw what it was made of--that the insects pressed into the mass were the main
ingredient--we lost our appetites and bought no more of it."
It wasn't until 1945 that the scientific identity of the aphid was determined.
Volney Jones10established its identity as Hyalopterus pruni, which is
called the mealy plum aphid because it spends its winter phase on plum trees and
other species of Prunus. In the spring and early summer it migrates to summer
hosts, primarily the reed grass, Phragmites communis, where it produces the
honeydew. The gathering of the honeydew seems to have been one of the annual
seasonal rounds of activity of the Indians of the Great Basin. A family or band
might camp for a short time near a stream or lake when the honeydew was ready.
By piecing together various ac counts of the manner of collection, Jones gives
the following picture: "The collection seems to have been primarily the work of
women and children. The reeds were cut and carried away from the water ....
Cutting was done just after sunrise, and the reeds were spread out to dry during
the warmer part of the day to dry the honey dew and make it brittle. During the
afternoon the reeds were held over a hide and beaten with a stick to dislodge
the deposits of honey dew which fell on the hide and could be collected .... The
honey dew was rolled into balls, wrapped in leaves, and stored in baskets until
Many other insects contributed on a regular basis to the Indian diet, among them
grasshoppers, cicadas, ants and ant pupae, wasp pupae and prepupae, certain
beetle larvae and several kinds of caterpillars. Edible insect harvest was a
part of the annual rounds of food procurement. The Indians knew exactly where to
go, and when, to find the desired insects, and large numbers of people and
consider able planning, travel and effort were often involved in harvesting them
(Sutton10). Some insects such as the Mormon cricket, grass hoppers
and pandora moth caterpillars yielded a very high energy return for the energy
expended in their harvest, often much higher than return rates from seeds or
other plant food resources . And. when dried, the insects were storable for use
as winter food.
In several localities, pandora moth caterpillars (Coloradiapandora) are still
harvested by elderly Paiute. Called piuga by the Indians, the caterpillars feed
primarily on the needles of the Jeffery pine and when fully grown descend the
tree trunk to pupate in the soil. They sometimes occurred in great numbers and
were collected in trenches dug around the bases of the trees. They were then
roasted by mixing them with hot sand. Piuga is regarded by the Paiute as "a
tasty, nutritious food that is especially good for sick people, much like our
chicken soup," according to Elizabeth Blake and Michael Wagner12, two
researchers at the University of Northern Arizona. In former times, according to
the late E. O. Essig13 (formerly an entomologist at the University of
California-Berkeley), hungry whites who tasted piuga claimed that boarding with
the early Californians "on the American plan was not so good."
Finally, among the insect foods of the western Indian tribes, none were more
widely harvested than grasshoppers. They were most often collected by using what
hunters call a "surround." H. M. Chittenden and A. D. Richardson14,
in their account of the life and travels of the French missionary, Father
Pierre-Jean De Smet, described the "surround" used in a Shoshoco grasshopper
hunt (circa 1850): "They begin by digging a hole, ten or twelve feet in diameter
by four or five deep; then, armed with long branches of artemisia, they surround
a field of four or five acres, more or less, according to the number of persons
who are engaged in it. They stand about twenty feet apart, and their whole work
is to beat the ground, so as to frighten up the grasshoppers and make them bound
forward. They chase them toward the centre by degrees--that is, into the hole
prepared for their reception., Their number is so consider able that frequently
three or four acres furnish grasshoppers sufficient to fill the reservoir or
A variation of the Shoshoco procedure was to build a fire covering 20 to 30 feet
square. 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 while
they were too cold to be active.
Edwin Bryant15 (circa 1848) provided one of the few assessments of
grasshopper palatability by a white. following an encounter with Utah Indians,
an occasion when three women appeared, "bringing baskets containing a substance,
which, upon examination, we ascertained to be service-berries, crushed to a jam
and mixed with pulverized grasshoppers. This composition being dried in the sun
until it becomes hard, is what may be called the 'fruitcake' of these poor
children of the desert. No doubt these women regarded it as one of the most
acceptable offerings they could make to us. We purchased all they brought with
them, paying them in darning needles and other small articles, with which they
were much pleased. The prejudice against the grasshopper 'fruitcake' was strong
at first, but it soon wore off, and none of the delicacy was thrown away or lost
.... After being killed, they [the grasshoppers] are baked before the fire or
dried in the sun, and then pulverized between smooth stones. Prejudice aside, I
have tasted what are called delicacies, less agree able to the palate."
Nutritionally, insects are high in protein, fat (and thus energy) and many of
the important vitamins and minerals. They have served as traditional foods in
most cultures of non-European origin and have played an important role in the
history of human nutrition not only in western North America, but in Africa,
Asia and Latin America. As might be expected from our European cultural
heritage, some early American whites looked with open disgust at the insect
foods of the American Indians. It is interesting, though, that so often, as
shown by the above examples, these cross-cultural encounters relative to food
seemed dominated by feelings of mutual tolerance, curiosity and respect and were
described with a sense of humor.
Gene R. DeFoliart, Editor
(Ed.: This article was originally written two or three years ago at the
invitation of a travel and outdoor magazine published in California. When the
magazine went on a reduced publication schedule, we got our manuscript back.
Nobody likes to throw away a manuscript that's already written, so we decided
that Newsletter readers might enjoy it.)
Addendum: This wasn't included in the original manuscript, but I think the
second of the two paragraphs below quoting Father Kino (as found in Bolton 1919l6)
is one of the more humorous passages (because of Kino's religious candor) that I
have encountered in the older North American literature. Kino labored in
California, Arizona and Sonora. In the first paragraph, he is talking about
aphid honeydew. The second paragraph is more on spiritual matters, and from
Father Kino's account it seems questionable as to who was converting who:
"In order that sugar, which with so great artifice and toil is made over here,
may not be lacking to the Californians, heaven provides them with it in
abundance in the months of April, May, and June, in the dew which at that time
falls upon the broad leaves, where it hardens and coagulates. They gather large
quantities of it, and I have seen and eaten it. It is as sweet as sugar to the
taste, and differs only in the refraction, which makes it dark." (II:56).
"All this fertility and wealth God placed in California only to be unappreciated
by the natives, because they are of a race who live satisfied with merely eating
.... By nature they are very lively and alert, qualities which they show, among
other ways, by ridiculing any barbarism in their language, as they did with us
when we were preaching to them. When they have been domesticated they come after
preaching to correct any slip in the use of their language. If one preaches to
them any mysteries contrary to their ancient errors, the sermon ended, they come
to the father. call him to account for what he has said to them, and argue and
discuss with him in favor of their error with considerable plausibility; but
through reason they submit with all docility." (II:58-60)
1. Browne, J.R. 1865? Washoe Revisited.
Notes on the Silver Regions of Nevada. Oakland, Calif.: Biobooks, pp. 111-114.
(Also in HarpersMonthly31:274-284;411-419.)
2. Brewer, W.H. 1930. Up and Down
California in 1860-1864. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, p. 417.
3. Fremont, J.C. 1845 (1988 reprint).
The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, p. 154.
4. Egan, W.M. (Ed.). 1917. Pioneering
the West 1846-1878: Major Howard Egan's Diary. Richmond, Utah: Howard Egan
Estate, pp. 228-233.
5. Gottfredson, P. 1874. Journal of
Perter Gottfredson, From the Gottfredson Family History. Ms. on file, Utah State
Hist. Soc., Salt Lake City, pp. 15-16.
6. Whiting, Beatrice B. 1950. Paiute
sorcery. Viking Fund Publs. Anthropol. No. 15, New York, pp. 17-19.
7. Aram, J. 1907. Reminiscences of
Captain Joseph Aram. Jour. Amer. Hist. 1, pp. 623-632.
8. Riddell, F.A. 1978. Honey Lake
Paiute ethnography. Occas Papers, Nev. State Mus. 3(1):51-52.
9. Bidwell, J. 1890. The first emigrant
train to California Century Mag. 19:106-130.
10. Jones, V.H.1945. The use of
honey-dew as food by Indians. The Masterkey 19:145-149.
11. Sutton, M.Q.1988. Insects as Food:
Aboriginal Entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press Anthropol. Papers.
No.33, 115 pp.
12. Blake, E.A.; Wagner, M.R. 1987.
Collection and consumption of pandora moth, Coloradia pandora lindseyi
(Lepidoptera: Satur niidae), larvae by Owens Valley and Mono Lake Paiutes. Bull
Entomol. Soc. Amer. 33:23-27.
13. Essig, E.0.1934. The value of
insects to the California Indians. Sci. Monthly 38:181-186.
14. Chittenden, H.M.; Richardson, A.D.
1905. Life, Letters and TravelsofFatherPierre-JeanDeSmet,S.J.,1801-1873. NewYork:
Harper, pp. 1032-1033.
l5. Bryant, E.1967. Whatl Saw in
California . . . in the Years 1846, 1847. Palo Alto, Calif.: Lewis Osborne, pp.
16. Bolton,H.E. l919.Kino's Historical
Memoir of Pimeria Alta. 2 vols. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., Vol. II, pp. 56,