THE FIRST TIME I floated Montana's Smith River with John Hirvela, the only food we took was a sack of potatoes and a shaker of salt. My friend assured me this was all we'd need. We'd cook trout and round off every meal with watercress salad gathered at a spring about 10 miles into the five-day float. · It was the kind of plan that sounds better at home than it does once you've launched your canoe. Especially when it rains and the color comes up on the river. I caught a brown at our first camp, but midway through the second day the water turned to creamed coffee, and then to espresso. By the time we reached the spring, it was apparent that our only source of protein would be the hordes of scuds and other aquatic insects that clung to the watercress.
Your First Course Insects are the most abundant life form on earth and, except during winter, are the first foods anyone should turn to for sustenance upon becoming lost or stranded. Not only can bugs be found in large quantities, but they are highly nutritious, being rich in fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The main caveat is that people who suffer from shellfish allergies should avoid them.
Grasshoppers are easy to pick off grass stems at dawn, when the nip in the air has caused them to go into torpor. Crickets, beetles, and grubs can be found under rocks. Other good places to search include behind loose bark, in decaying stumps, and inside seed pods. Earth mounds often betray insect activity underneath.
For sorting through loose soil and rotted wood, it helps to use a digging stick. Another excellent tool for insect collection is a seine, which you can jury-rig by tying your shirt or handkerchief between two poles. Use it to catch active bugs such as flying grasshoppers, or in a stream for aquatic insects.
On the Menu The best edible insects include crickets, cicadas, and grasshoppers, along with termites, ants (which need to be cooked), moths, and butterflies. Some arthropods, including scorpions and tarantulas, are also edible. Nearly all aquatic insects can be eaten in both adult and larval form and, in my experience, are generally more agreeable than their landlubbing brethren. Grubs, worms, leeches, and beetle larvae have a slime factor that can cause a gag reflex and should be either swallowed without chewing, or mashed into a paste and cooked crisply.
While most insects are O.K. raw, they are more palatable after being cooked. Boiling or roasting (wrap the insects in leaves) kills any bacteria, as well as renders the proteins more digestible. Remove beady heads, hard carapaces, wings, barbed legs, and antennae to reduce the “crunch factor,” ease swallowing, and eliminate any parasites. With a grasshopper, twist off the head—the guts should come with it—before swallowing the abdomen. I have often picked mayflies off the river surface and nibbled their abdomens, which taste like, well, mayflies. However, because the water that clings to aquatic insects can be contaminated, it's safer to cook them. On our Smith River trip, we tried boiling our “greens and grubs,” but the bugs had a brighter, nuttier taste eaten raw, and the tang of the watercress, along with a precious few swallows of Scotch, helped subdue the aftertaste.
What to avoid? Pass on bugs that are covered in fuzz. (Bees and wasps are safe to eat if you remove their stingers.) Beware of brightly colored insects, or for that matter any slow-moving insects that you find in the open; they don't give a damn about predators because they know they're poisonous. Disease-carrying species including flies, mosquitoes, and ticks also are to be strictly avoided, as is any bug that emits a strong odor.
As for the rest, open your mouth and close your eyes. Bon appetit.