Grasshoppers

 

Grasshoppers, ko'djo (P, N), añuto (C), ko'tco (C, S), were much esteemed as food and were taken in systematic drives, usually in June. An entire village, or several villages, assembled in an open grassy area, where the insects were abundant. A grassy area, surrounded by a strip of bare ground, was preferred. Each family dug one or more holes, a foot in diameter and three feet deep. These were the focal point of the drive. Quantities of dry grass were piled on the ground among these holes, to be used as a smudge. If available, pine branches were set up for the insects to alight on.

 

The people then formed a large circle, the diameter depending on the number participating, and drove the grasshoppers toward these pits. Men, women, and children swung bunches of grass back and forth like brooms. The narrowness of the pits contributed greatly to the capture of the insects, making it difficult for them to jump out. When the insects had been corralled in the pits and in the area immediately surrounding them, the dry grass was lighted. This singed the wings of those that tried to fly and smothered most of the remainder. The grasshoppers were in part immediately eaten and in part dried for winter use. In either case they were cooked further. When all was ready the chief of the group would say: “Let us eat and have a good time.”

 

John Powell explained to Edward Gifford that when the new grasshoppers come they do not eat them immediately.  They are not eaten until four days after they are caught.  People in the vicinity participate, but no sutila is sent out.  Uwetum gotcoi, eating new grasshoppers it is called in Northern Miwok.  No dances are held at the eating of first grasshoppers.  At this time a shaman presses each individual and utters a prayer.  After the pressing, seed is burned in the hangi fire.  Kotca, a black seed, is burned.  It is from short meadow plant with blue flower.  Tokobu another seed, round like mustard seed, pops open with a noise when burned.  Sitila is another seed burned as offering.  Sitila is a flattish seed.  It grows on a meadow plant, sitila, which reaches a foot in height.  Tokobu grows in a low place, has single stem with pretty light blue flower.  It reaches 2 feet in height.

 

There were two methods of cooking grasshoppers, parching in an openwork basket, and cooking in the earth oven. This oven was circular, twelve to eighteen inches deep, six feet in diameter. A layer of hot stones was put in it. These were covered with green tule (puya, N), then grasshoppers. The grasshoppers were in turn covered with green tule. Hot stones were put on the pile above the tule covering. The cooking took less than half a day. Several families cooked in the same oven. The grasshoppers belonging to each were segregated by layers or partitions of tule. Women made and tended the oven, although sometimes old men dug the pit.

 

A Northern Miwok informant participated in an unusual drive at Jackson, Amador County. A vineyardist invited the Indians to rid his vines of grasshoppers, paying them in flour, sugar, and other commodities. In the very early morning, the old women (grandmothers) beat the vines, so that the grasshoppers fell into burden baskets (dülma, N) held below. Seed-beaters (tcama, N), of second-growth chaparral, were used to knock the insects off. With dew on the leaves the grasshoppers did not fly. The grasshoppers were transferred to acorn-soup baskets (wilûka, N), covered with basket plaques (ulita, N). After scalding, the grasshoppers were spread on basket plaques to dry. [Barrett & Gifford]

 

The above account in Jackson appeared in Miwok Material Culture.  This account appears in Edward Gifford’s Northern Miwok Fieldnotes (BANC FILM 2216).  Gifford’s notes for December 29, 1917 with John Powell provide the following:

 

“Driving grasshoppers into a grass circle which as a ring of clear ground around it.  After the grasshoppers have been driven into this enclosure, it is fired.  In a grasshopper drive, men, women, and children participate; each swings a bunch of brush back and forth in front of him like a broom.  Pine branches are set up in the enclosure and upon these the grasshoppers alight.  Frank, who is 46 years old, participated in such a drive at Jackson as a small boy.  This was in a white man’s vineyard.  The vineyardist feared that the grasshoppers would destroy his vines so he invited the Indians to rid him of them, paying them in sugar, flour, etc.  In the very early morning the old ladies (grandmothers) went out and beat the vines so that the grasshoppers fell off into baskets held below.  The basket in which the grasshoppers were gathered is called dülma.  Tcama is the name of the one with which the beating is done.  It is made of second-growth chaparral and shaped like a seed-beater, in fact it is a seed-beater.  The dülma is a burden basket, also used for gathering acorns.  The grasshoppers do not fly when there is dew on the leaves.  At camp the grasshoppers are transferred to a wilûka, or acorn-soup basket, these are covered with ulita, basket trays, until they are ready to pour boiling water over them.  Then they are spread out on basket trays to dry.  There are two methods of cooking: parching is called yatcu.  Ulup, the earth oven, is used.  This oven is about six feet in diameter, round.  A layer of hot rocks is put in; then this is covered with green tule.  Tule is called puya.  The oven is about 1 ½ feet deep.  Several families cook in the same oven.  The grasshoppers are covered with green tule.  Each family’s lot of grasshoppers was separated from the next by a layer of tule.  Women did the cooking and made the oven, although sometimes old men dug the hole.  Hot stones are put on top of the pile above the tule covering.  The cooking takes less than half a day.”

 

This same account is possibly documented by the Amador Ledger on July 11, 1885 as follows:

 

“Gathering Them In. – A band of Indians has been engaged catching grasshoppers around Froelich’s place, between Jackson and Sutter Creek.  The insects commenced to attack the vineyard, and realizing that something had to be done to save the crop, Mr. Froelich got the Indians after the varmints.  Their mode of procedure is novel.  They scrape the grass off a small space, and pile the dry grass on the edge of the plat in the shape of a semi circle.  Towards evening they commence to drive the grasshoppers toward this bare spot, and they naturally accumulate in the grassy hillock.  When it is pretty well loaded up with live stock, the Indians set fire to it, and the hoppers in attempting to escape, get their wings scorched, and fall, and are gathered up in sacks.  In a few days they accumulated nearly two large sacks full in this way, and the pests have been so far diminished that no further danger of the destruction of the grape crop is apprehended.  The Indians make use of the hoppers as food, and say they taste like shrimps.”

 

Part of the Froelich place is still owned by descendants of the family today. 

 

Just a few months earlier in the same year a grasshopper gathering was documented in the Camanche area of Calaveras County.  The Stockton Evening Mail on May 21, 1885 reported the following account:

 

“The grasshoppers are reported to be within two miles of this place.  The grasshoppers are no detriment to the Indians.  The other day I saw about twenty Indians making a grasshopper drive near Comanche.  In the middle of the field they had a spot cleared, and within this clearing I counted thirty holes about two feet deep and about eight inches in diameter.  The Indians drove the grasshoppers from all sides with brooms and brush into the cleared place, where the hoppers jumped into the holes and could not get out.  The holes were then covered with sacks and the grasshoppers taken out.  Thence they were taken to the Indian camp and roasted in hot ashes.  The process after roasting is to expose them to the sun for a few days, and then grind them to a powder.  The powder, or flour, is made into cakes and is considered a great delicacy by the Indians. 

W.K.”

 

In 1885, the Mokelumne Indians were living in the Camanche area with Chief Maximo.  It is likely the Mokelumne Indians were participants in the grasshopper gathering near Camanche in 1885.  By 1900, the remnant Mokelumne Indians had moved to Jackson Valley just a few miles south of Ione.

 

Casus Oliver provided Samuel Barrett the following about gathering grasshoppers:

 

“Drive held by several villages.  All go out and camp where they know there are grass hoppers (out on plains).  Select some locality and all make holes 3 feet or so deep and foot or so diameter.  Each family has hole of its own all in this small area.  Then all, big little old and young, go out to drive hoppers to this area.  They go in the holes and are captured.  They had before the drive piled grass all around among holes and when drive is over light the grass and smoke and burn the hoppers to death.  Then take hoppers out into baskets.  Dry for winter or bake in hole in ground same as baking bread etc.  They were cooked this way before drying.  This hopper drive was occasion of great time.  They gambled at night in old fashioned way.”

 

In discussions with Myra Hobart in 2021, Myra remembered eating grasshoppers with her grandpa William Walloupe Jr. when she was young most likely in the 1950s.  William had already caught the grasshoppers and had killed them by pinching their heads, which Myra witnessed on some occasions.  William would roast them on top of the wood stove inside his house.  Once roasted he would pick one up and eat it.  As a little girl, Myra remembered eating grasshoppers with him.

 

The Contra Costa Gazette reported the following account on June 8, 1861:

 

“Grasshoppers. – The people of Huntsville, at the western extremity of Calaveras county, are complaining of a grasshopper scourge.  The insects have become so numerous on the plains, that they are eating up every green plant and all the leaves from the fruit trees in the gardens and vineyards of that neighborhood.  A few days since a gentleman from that place hired a lot of Indians to kill the grasshoppers that were approaching his garden.  They worked away for six hours, at the end of which time he gathered up what he could of the slain insects and weighing them, found the net proceeds to be forty-two pounds.”

 

Other Related Accounts of Gathering Grasshoppers

 

Empire County Argus March 18, 1854:

 

“A GRASSHOPPER ROAST,

Among the choice delicacies with which the “digger'’ Indians regale themselves during the summer season, is the grasshopper roast.

 

Having been an eye-witness to the preparation and discussion of one of their feasts of grasshoppers, we can describe it truthfully. There are districts of California, as well as portions of the plains between the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains, that literally swarm with grasshoppers and in such astonishing numbers that a man cannot place his foot to the ground while walking among them, without crushing great numbers. To the Indian they are a delicacy, and are caught and cooked in the following manner:

 

A piece of ground is sought where they most abound, in the centre of which an excavation is made, large and deep enough to prevent the insect from hopping out when once in. The entire party of Diggers, old and young, male and female, then surround as much of the adjoining grounds as they can, and with each a green' bough in hand, whipping and thrashing on every side, gradually approach the centre, driving the insects before them in countless multitudes, until at last all or nearly all are secured in the pit. In the mean time smaller excavations are made, answering the purpose of ovens, in which fires are kindled and kept up till the surrounding earth, for a short distance, becomes sufficiently heated, together with a flat stone, large enough to cover the oven.

 

The grasshoppers are now taken in coarse bags, and after being thoroughly soaked in salt water for a few moments, are emptied into the ovens and closed in. Ten or fifteen minutes suffices to roast them, when they are taken out and eaten without further preparation and with much apparent relish, or as is sometimes the case, reduced to powder and made into a soup.

 

And having from curiosity tasted, not of the soup, but of the roast, really if one could but divest himself of the idea of eating an insect as we do an oyster or a shrimp, without other preparation than simple roasting, they would not be considered very bad eating even by more refined epicures than the Digger Indians.”

 

Stanislaus County Weekly News July 25, 1873:

 

“Riding through the foothills, near Rocklin, I saw a curious and unexpected sight.  There are still a few wretched Digger Indians in this part of California; and what I saw was a party of these engaged in catching grasshoppers, which they boil and eat.  They dig a number of funnel-shaped holes, wide at the top, and eighteen inches deep, on a cleared space, and then, with rags and brush drive the grasshoppers toward these holes, forming for the purpose a wide circle.  It is slow work, but they seem to delight in it; and their excitement was great as they neared the circle of holes, and the insects begin to hop and fall into them.  At last there was close and rapid rally and a half a dozen bushels of grasshoppers were driven into the holes; whereupon hats, aprons, bags and rags were stuffed in to prevent the multitudes from dispersing; and then began the work of picking them out by handfuls, crushing them roughly in the hand to keep them quiet and crowding them into bags in which they were to be carried to their rancheria.  “Sweet, all ame pudding.” Cried an old woman to me, as I stood looking on.  It is not a good year for grasshoppers this year; no they like the year of which an inhabitant of Roseville spoke to me later in the day when he said they ate up every bit of his garden truck and then sat on the fence and asked him for a chew of tobacco. –New York Tribune.”

 


 

 

Sources Consulted:

 

Amador Ledger July 11, 1885

Barrett, Samuel Fieldnotes

Barrett, Samuel A. and Gifford, Edward W..  Miwok Material Culture

Empire County Argus March 18, 1854

Gifford, Edward W.  Northern Miwok Fieldnotes.   Ethnological Documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1875-1958.  Collection number: BANC FILM 2216.  Northern and Central Sierra Miwok field notes. 1917 BANC FILM 2216: 203.  The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.  Berkeley, CA 94720-6000

 

Hobart, Myra Personal Communication 2021

Stanislaus County Weekly News July 25, 1873

Stockton Evening Mail.  May 21, 1885.