Edible Bugs: More Than Just Protein

Edible Bugs: More Than Just Protein

Flavor notes range from peppery lemon to pine-nutty to prosciutto-savory. Some varieties make for lovely garnishes on your seafood salad, 
while others are perfect as the heart of a well-salsa’d taco.

Some new-ancient legume? The latest grain-based trend? No — I’m talking about edible bugs.

And I’m not the only one. Bug-based recipes are showing up all over Instagram and your favorite cooking magazines. Yet while we in the West are playing catch-up, some cultures around the world have been enjoying arthropods and mealworms for millennia.

If you think about it — with a wide-open mind — bugs aren’t all that different from crustaceans. After all, crayfish (or, crawfish) are known by some in Louisiana as mudbugs. Just as we enjoy the sweet flavor of shrimp and the slight crunch involved in devouring a crab or lobster, eating bugs just takes a bit of practice.

That’s what Aly Moore believes, anyway. Her site (eatbugsevents.com) and beautiful Instagram feed (@bugible) are dedicated to making bugs seem like the white-hot snack trend you’re dying to try. She even does bug-and-wine pairings to highlight the wide variety of flavor notes. And, who knows, maybe the wine helps reduce inhibitions against taking that first bite.

Top: Mealworms and dark chocolate — bugs can satisfy a sweet tooth! Photo by Ashley Corbin-Teich. Bottom: Summer salad with chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and roasted crickets from Entomo Farms.

Bugs Around the World

While eating bugs may be a novel idea for Americans and other Westerners, insects have long been a valuable ingredient in many parts of the world.

grasshoppers (chapulines)

diagram of grasshopper


diagram of ant

crickets served instead of bar nuts

diagram of cricket

South Korea
silkworm pupae

diagram of silkworm pupae

South Africa
mopane worm

diagram of mopane worm

escargot (technically a mollusk, but they do live in the garden)

diagram of snail

“I think people are all really pleasantly surprised,” she says about guests at her bug dinners and wine-and-bug pairing events. “I give people a spiel that does everything from comparing bugs to seafood to describing the tasting notes, and you can see them starting to warm up to the idea. That lightbulb moment is great, when they realize bugs are not at all bad. In fact, they have a familiar flavor.”

Focusing on flavor is a key tactic for Moore — especially in her wine events, where she highlights specific bug flavor notes and pairs a complementary wine. Crickets go nicely with lighter reds like pinot noir, Moore says, while meatier-flavored grubs want a more robust Zinfandel. Scorpions, you might be surprised to learn, have a delicate salmon-y flavor that’s perfect with a zingy sauvignon blanc.

If you’re not ready to take the plunge with a whole roasted tarantula, there are lots of ways to experiment with eating bugs without knowing they’re an ingredient — for example, cricket- flour protein bars or chips are increasingly easy to find in mainstream grocery stores.

But, really, Moore is a fan of highlighting the whole insect in all its glory to help people begin to think of them as a tasty option in their everyday diets.

“Comfort foods” — like pizza topped with meaty grasshoppers (aka chapulines in Oaxaca) or sago grubs, which are known as the bacon of the bug world — “are a great way to help people get over the hurdle,” Moore says. “Making comfort foods that people can relate to helps create positive associations with eating bugs.”

Pinot noir and crickets, a classic combo. Focusing on flavor is a key tactic for Aly Moore — especially in her wine events, where she highlights specific bug flavor notes and pairs a complementary wine.

Ready to start cooking with edible bugs? Check out the “Buy Bugs” link on eatbugsevents.com for resource ideas.


How do you go from crawling to crunchy without the use of toxic pesticides or a dramatic SQUISH? Oh, just chill — the bugs, that is. While many studies concur that bugs’ central nervous systems aren’t complex enough to feel pain, you might worry a bit anyway. A humane and simple way to corral those critters is to refrigerate them. Because they’re cold-blooded, they fall asleep, at which point you can move them to a freezer to ensure they’ll never crawl, jump or fly again.

Recipe Tracker: Cooking Out of the Box

Recipe Tracker: Cooking Out of the Box

Have you ever had a compost bin full of bits and druthers that you think are almost edible? You know, the thin peels of broccoli or carrots or apples? What about a refrigerator drawer with wilted greens or the selection of cheeses you got for that cocktail party a month ago? Do you just chuck them out, concerned that they’re not fresh enough to use or be delicious?

And what about the money you spent on those ingredients? Or the costs of producing them? Does tossing no-longer-fresh food take a toll on your grocery budget, as well as your environmental conscience?

As landfills are increasingly brimming with food that was produced but never consumed (for a variety of reasons), it may be time to reconsider the ways in which we assign a value to ingredients. After all, in less affluent eras — or areas of the world and the U.S. — people couldn’t afford to waste food products that could still contribute to a tasty and nutritious meal. Think of it as a really good time to figure out how to be creative with your organic kitchen matter.

The good news is lots of people, including some of the world’s best chefs, are working on ways to address this very issue. In fact, two recent cookbooks — or, let’s say, sources of recipes — approach the notion of creating a dish from opposite ends of the spectrum. One, “Bread is Gold,” by the world-renowned chef Massimo Bottura, is a collection of recipes and stories by and about a variety of chefs who were called to cook using only products that arrived at a pop-up soup kitchen during the 2015 Milan World Expo as excess, day-old or deemed insufficiently fresh to sell.

The Expo’s theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” spoke directly to Bottura, who worked with a parish priest in the city to transform an old theater into a dining hall that could accommodate, restaurant-style, 100 guests each day — serving lunch to area school children and supper to local homeless people.

For the fancy chefs who came to Milan to cook for a day or two at the Refettorio, their constrained ingredient lists were the catalysts to their creativity. Deliveries included days-old bread, produce in various states of maturity or discoloration, cheeses and other dairy products that were nearing or past their sell-by dates. Each day’s supplies were different and unpredictable. After the initial shock of the arbitrariness of that day’s delivery wore off, the enterprising chefs got straight to work, creating delicious and comforting meals for their guests.

“Something of apparently no use could become a secret weapon in the kitchen, a super power that could magically transform a dull dish into a vibrant one,” Bottura writes about the solution Chef Cristina Bowerman devised for using the outer — and often discarded — leaves of vegetables: Dry them and grind them into intense powders that add stealthy flavor to dishes. (She’s not the only one who makes savory powders from dehydrated vegetable peels; read on.)

The chefs wasted nothing because very little was available to start with. Even banana peels were used to make a chutney. It was a revelation, even to one of the world’s top chefs, Bottura. “If you open your mind and start thinking differently about ingredients, then you no longer have to throw away a banana peel ever again,” he writes.

“Bread is Gold” shares stories and recipes by chefs who fed hundreds of people using food deemed unfit to sell. The key to success? Human chefs who applied their knowledge and experience to effect a delicious outcome.

Chef Massimo Bottura

By contrast, for Chef Watson, developed by IBM — yes, that Watson — the sky’s the limit when it comes to ingredients. Through machine learning and algorithms, an online app called Chef Watson will take in up to four ingredients that you suggest (whether or not you see how they might result in something delicious) and output a set of instructions that it “believes” will create an edible dish. Chef Watson offers a never-ending source of combinations for any ingredient under the sun. [Editor’s note: Alas, IBM closed its Chef Watson site in June 2018.]

The computer ingested the entire archive of Bon Appetit magazine, as well as a huge dataset of different ingredients and their detailed flavor profiles. From there, Chef Watson learned to recognize synergies — ingredients that seem to go well together (understood perhaps by frequency of pairing or through the logic of their marrying profiles). Garlic and tomatoes. Mushrooms and butter. Pork and apples.

As the recipe appears on screen it displays three graphic measurements — synergy, pleasantness and surprise — that help the user determine how the hypothetical dish might turn out. Just as constraints fueled the chefs at the Milan Refettorio, the search for novelty drives Watson’s recipes.

While the platform is available online for anyone to use, Chef Watson has been on a few roadshows, employed by featured chefs to make novel dishes. The chronicle of these events is a book called “Cognitive Cooking,” another collection of experiential narratives and try-it-yourself recipes.

“Cognitive Cooking” shares stories and recipes by IBM’s Chef Watson, which generates recipes from any combination of ingredients. The key to success? Human chefs who applied their knowledge and experience to effect a delicious outcome.

If you have unused ingredients lingering in your fridge and pantry, don’t toss them — type them into Chef Watson’s ingredient fields and await a recipe generated just for you. You can refine outcomes through filters such as cuisine type, dish type or even holiday. Dinner solved!

Central to the recipe successes shared in the book are the chefs — the human cooks — whose expertise and creativity helped shape Watson’s “suggestions” of unusual ingredient combinations into viable outcomes. For instance, an early trial was a pastry recipe for Spanish Almond Crescent. But the ingredient list included more liquids than would work to make a stable dough. A chef at the Institute of Culinary Education tweaked the recipe, substituting some ingredients for others to ensure a satisfying outcome but still maintain the flavor profile Chef Watson suggested.

“This is the nature of the human-machine collaboration,” the book notes. “The computer doesn’t dictate. It suggests.”

For IBM Watson Group Engineer Florian Pinel, Chef Watson has great potential to help people eat more healthfully by personalizing recipes according to dietary constraint and personal preference. It also could help reduce food waste by making suggestions based on what lurks in your refrigerator, finding ways to use the last of those beets along with the remains of the star fruit and ground pork you bought for last weekend’s cooking project.

“People can create new, personalized recipes on the fly,” Pinel said in a 2014 TED@IBM talk. “People can cook food that’s flavorful and healthy without ever eating the same thing twice.”

Whether you come to your starting line with leftovers and remainders or a motley collection of ingredients for your next unique Watson creation, a key component is a human willingness to see the value in every piece of the puzzle. Whether it goes into tonight’s dinner or becomes part of the stock for tomorrow’s sauce, just about every edible thing on Earth has a value that should prevent it from simply being next week’s landfill fodder.

IBM engineer Florian Pinel talks about the thinking behind Chef Watson in this 2014 TED@IBM Talk.

That’s certainly the philosophy that drives Chef Ian Thurwachter of Intero, an Italian-themed fine-dining restaurant in Austin.

Fine-dining restaurants are often known for their pristine ingredients and precise techniques, the combination of which should result in a mind-blowing dining experience that’s hard to replicate at home. But often, there’s a cost to this level of quality, and it’s not only found in the prices on the menu.

For example, to create carrot brunoise, the delicate ⅛-inch dice that often garnish soups or stews, one must start with an irregular, round vegetable and make it square. In the same vein, to get to the heart of a broccoli stem, arguably the sweetest, most tender and delicious part of the green brassica, the outer peel must be removed first.

In both instances, once you’ve finished cutting and have the finished ingredients, ready to sprinkle or roast or puree, you also have a pile of peel and other trimmings — byproducts that often end up in a compost bin, or worse, the garbage.

Not so at Intero, where Chef Thurwachter operates a no-waste kitchen in which every stem, peel, animal organ, off-cut of meat or other commonly tossed odd and end is put to flavorful use.

Chef Ian Thurwachter. Photo by Kenny Braun.

This Intero dish features a pesto made from radish tops, carrot tops and almonds. Extra carrot greens top the dish as a leafy garnish.

Yum Yum powder (dehydrated fermented broccoli scraps) sprinkled over a dish that highlights the rest of the broccoli plant, grilled florets and thin slices of pickled broccoli stem.

A branzino fish entree dusted with lemon powder.

Take the humble, fibrous broccoli peel. At Intero, they pack it with salt and sugar and leave it to ferment for several days. “It balloons up, is intensely pungent, with a very off-putting smell. But the flavor is really awesome — it’s got this tart saltiness,” Thurwachter explains. “We take all that and dehydrate it and turn it into a powder that’s got this background funkiness. It’s intensely savory, and we use it as a seasoning.” (Another clever dehydrated use for vegetable peels….)

The idea for this transformation came from a sous chef who had seen some something similar with mushrooms. Thurwachter engages his team in regular brainstorming sessions to figure out how best to use all the scraps.

“About once a week it’s a necessity,” he says, “but we try to make it an ongoing thing. Every day we have projects.” Projects such as dehydrating the smoked carrots his bartender used for a cocktail. The resulting powder will go into a pasta dough. Or using remnants from artichokes that were served as a bar snack in a stock that pairs with a rabbit tortelloni. “It’s just constantly trying to move these puzzle pieces around,” he says about the challenge of using all the parts.

It’s a challenge that resembles the no-waste reality of Italian farmers of earlier generations. “I love Italian cooking more than I love Italian food because it’s really a cuisine that historically is based on poverty,” Thurwachter says. He explains how veal farmers used to sell their prime cuts to fancy restaurants in Milan and keep the off-cuts — the lower-valued and harder-to-sell cuts — such as the shanks and head, for themselves.

But just as Bottura’s chefs made scrumptious meals from undervalued ingredients in Milan in 2015, Italian farmers of yore tapped into their own creative wells.

“They came up with things like osso bucco milanese (using the veal shank), which is the quintessential Italian dish,” Thurwachter explains. And it didn’t stop there. Arancini, fried rice balls, are made from leftover rice, stuffed with leftover veal and fried the next day for yet another meal originating from humble ingredients. “And then there are these really elaborate preparations where the farmer’s wife took the time to completely bone out the veal head and roll it up into this beautiful roulade and braise it and then slice it super thin and serve it with bitter greens and a salad. I would take that veal roulade with a salad over a veal chop any day of the week,” Thurwachter says, vividly illustrating an alternative way to value ingredients.

While he’s set a different challenge for himself than Massimo Bottura or Florian Pinel, Chef Thurwachter relies on a similar asset: “Our biggest resource in the kitchen is our collective creativity.”

Paste made from fermented broccoli peel before being dehydrated.

Homemade vinegar-in-process at Intero using carrot tops and leftover wine from bottles sold by the glass.

How to Make Do in Wartime

How to Make Do in Wartime

Rations. The word itself conjures up images of shortages, insufficiency and want. No fruit. Limited amounts of sugar and flour. Small bits of tough meat. As World War II interrupted agricultural production and food distribution in the United Kingdom, simple staples — nevermind specialty or exotic items — became scarce.

Food rations in England during World War II were hardly luxurious. But helpful hints, recipes and positive, patriotic messaging from the Ministry of Food encouraged citizens and families to feel that their sacrifices were a valuable contribution to the war effort. This painting by Leonora K. Green illustrates the weekly rations for two people.

To keep a healthy population that could contribute to the war effort, the British government, like many other governments before it during tough times, instituted a system of controls that limited, but aimed to equalize, what people could buy — regardless of their socioeconomic status. Along with the rations, the Ministry of Food enlisted home economists to help families effectively manage their food budgets. These experts also offered ideas and recipes for making the most of what was available, both in terms of flavor and satisfaction, but also for national morale. Books and pamphlets from the era encouraged home cooks with reassuring language, inviting a patriotic perspective of the hardships.

While long lines were a daily reality at markets, and meats and treats were in short supply, everyone was entitled to the basics. Each citizen had his or her own ration book. Adults were apportioned a certain quantity of meats, fats, sugars, tea, cheese, eggs and milk (either liquid or powdered). Children were allotted their share and enjoyed the occasional orange or portion of whole milk for their growing bodies. Staying healthy was an important part of the war effort.

Other scarce items were distributed through a points system, which allowed consumers some choice and the ability to splurge on fruits, sweets or finer cuts of meat from time to time.

One of the biggest changes during the war for home cooks was the introduction of “National flour.” Before the war, England imported up to 70 percent of its grains (or cereals, as they were known), but the waterways around the island nation were dangerous and not easily passable. German U-boats regularly attacked ships bound for the U.K. in an effort to starve the Brits into submission.

In 1942, the Ministry of Food introduced National flour, a coarser grind that included 15 percent more whole grain wheat than the refined white flour available before the war. It also contained “diluent” grains — including barley, oats and rye — and powdered milk for additional calcium. The government’s goal was twofold: reduce import losses and improve the health of Britons, “even under the handicap of war.”

Food-related messaging from the Ministry of Food reminded consumers why they were sacrificing and encouraged good eating habits, despite the hardships.

For a population that loves its baked goods, National flour and the tough, grayish “National loaf” — the only bread available in bakeries — took some getting used to. The Ministry’s home economists published leaflets and newspaper columns with handy hints:

Cooking Hints for National Flour

National flour can be used just as well as white flour in cakes, puddings, pastry, for thickening soups and stews, but remember the following points: —
1. Use a little more liquid for mixing, i.e. mix to a softer consistency.
2. Bake, boil or steam a little longer.
3. Add a little more seasoning to savoury dishes.
4. Add more salt and water when making bread.
5. Use a little extra flour for thickening sauces.
6. Use a little less sugar for sweet dishes.

In fact, the Ministry more actively encouraged the use of an alternative and much more readily available ingredient for its population’s pastry needs: potatoes.

Song of Potato Pete

Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato (in a salad) cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships!

English food bloggers have shared their experiences cooking with wartime rations. And watch a charming newsreel-style film about rations in Britain during WWII.

The lowly potato was elevated to a key ingredient during the war years. It grew in abundance on the British Isles and was filling during lean years. “Potatoes help to protect you from illness,” says a leaflet from the Ministry of Food. “Potatoes give you warmth and energy. Potatoes are cheap and home-produced. So why stop at serving them once a day? Have them twice, or even three times — for breakfast, dinner and supper.”

P’s for Protection Potatoes afford;
O’s for the Ounces of Energy stored;
T’s for the Tasty, and Vitamins rich in;
A’s for the Art to be learnt in the Kitchen.
T’s for Transport we need not demand;
O’s for old England’s Own Food from the Land;
E’s for the Energy eaten by you;
S’s for the Spuds which will carry us through!

Potatoes were among many edible plants that could be found in British “Victory Gardens.” The government commandeered sports fields and golf courses for planting and encouraged people to use every bit of soil they had access to — from decorative gardens to small edge plots and even containers on apartment rooftops — to cultivate household vegetable and herb gardens. Leeks, turnips and swedes (rutabagas) were popular choices that grew well in the chilly British climate.

In addition to managing ingredients, home cooks also had to worry about conserving fuel. Using the oven for multiple items at once (the casserole AND the pudding) was crucial. Alternative methods for conserving fuel included starting a braise on the stove, then finishing in a cooling oven once the baked goods were done. Or using a hay box, a box with room for a cooking pot, lined with hay and covered; the insulation preserved the heat in the pot for several hours, until the stew or soup was done.

Schoolgirls helped farmers in Buckinghamshire to harvest potatoes. (1943) Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS. Click image to enlarge.

“More or less, this simple but surprisingly little-practiced rule is true in using an oven: try to fill every inch of space in it,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher in “How to Cook a Wolf,” her handbook of sorts for living happily during trying times. “Even if you do not want baked apples for supper, put a pan of them with whatever is baking at from 240 to 400 degrees. They will be all the better for going slowly, but as long as their skins do not scorch they can cook fast. They make a good meal in themselves, with cream if you have any, or milk heated with some cinnamon and nutmeg in it, and buttered toast and tea.”

No ingredient was wasted. The water used to boil vegetables was saved for soup base. Leafy stems from root vegetables were neither tossed nor composted but valued as a vegetable in their own right. The Ministry of Food emphasized the nutritional importance of green veggies and encouraged families to eat one raw vegetable per day.

Creative substitutions were common a way to adapt. “You can make many a good tricked dish, with a few mushrooms, some leftover rice, and a dash of wine, if you have one of those frightening, efficient cans of ‘rich brown meat gravy’ on hand,” Fisher writes, inspiring readers to use what they have to its best effect. “It is spurious, maybe. It is chicanery. But it is economical and useful psychologically, especially if you are three miles from a market and the siren blows just as you are pumping up your bike-tire.”

The British system of rations lasted well beyond the end of World War II, ending in 1954. But the effects of rationing were largely positive. “The rich got less to eat, which did them no harm and the poor, so far as the supply would allow, got a diet adequate for health, with free orange juice, cod liver oil, extra milk and other things for mothers and children,” wrote Lord Boyd Orr, post-war head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in his memoirs.

The nutritional playing field had been leveled across the classes, and Brits had no choice but to eat their vegetables.

Recipe Tracker: Tart in Ymbre Days

Recipe Tracker: Tart in Ymbre Days

Cookbooks are more than collections of recipes. They may have a theme (Appetizers! Cookies! Tacos!) or showcase a particular cuisine (Thai, Italian, Parsi). Some cookbooks tell stories to contextualize their dishes or ingredients, offering the history of a meal or its place in a holiday tradition. Others provide detailed instructions about technique, inviting the reader to start with this recipe, then try other ingredients using the same method.

But cookbooks are also products of their time. Just compare the aspics, crown roasts and cheese balls found in Helen Corbitt’s 1957 classic with the sous vide chicken breasts and kale salads in a contemporary volume. Cookbooks reflect not only trends in food preparation and flavors but also the availability of ingredients in a certain era and region.

Take, for instance, “The Forme of Cury,” a collection of recipes recorded by a master cook working in the court of King Richard II. It’s one of the earliest known cookbooks and was probably made as a record of food served, rather than as a working cookbook. There are a handful of copies, all handwritten before the advent of printing centuries later.

“There’s no way really to tell if anyone ever used them, unless you look at the stains on them,” says Ken Albala, a Renaissance historian and food scholar at the University of the Pacific. “Chances are these were not brought into the kitchen, because usually cooks were not literate. But whoever wrote these down obviously was.”

Some of the ingredients used in 1390 will seem quite familiar: game (consumed more by nobles with estates), pork, chicken, butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables, spices. But the preparations differ from dishes we eat today. “The way they think of food, the colors they like, the flavors, the textures, the ingredients — it’s a completely different cuisine” than contemporary European fare, Albala says.

The origins of much medieval cuisine are in the Muslim Middle East, Albala explains. Those ingredients and techniques moved to India with Mughals and then to Spain and the rest of Europe. From there they traveled to Mexico with the conquistadors in the 1500s. “The moles of Mexico are the long-lost cousins of the curries in India,” Albala says.

Tart in Ymbre Days, as prepared by the author. It’s basically an onion frittata, dotted with raisins and delicious with a salad.

The generous use of spices in royal repasts was a display of wealth and status. Pepper and cinnamon traveled from India, while cloves and nutmeg originated in Indonesia and ginger came from China. Passing through the hands of Arab and Venetian merchants during their years-long journey, the exotic spices in use in the 14th century were exorbitantly expensive, accessible only to the wealthy.

While spices were sold in apothecaries, staples, such as milk, cheese, butter, grains and bread, were available in food markets, set-ups that resemble our modern farmer’s markets. “Food markets go back to ancient times,” Albala says. “In England, there are markets that started in the middle ages that are still there.” As with any type of market, the laws of supply and demand came into play. In the years following the plague — the period in which the Forme of Cury was written — the population was down, so wages were higher; thus, meat consumption also increased. As the population rebounded, wages fell, and the poor ate less meat.

Diets of the 14th century were influenced by more factors than just the availability of ingredients. Religious traditions and dietary rules informed daily menu planning. “Religion determined what you could eat seasonally and during fast days,” Albala says. “Lent, vigils of saints’ days — probably a third of the whole calendar is fasting.” The Tart in Ymbre Days recipe on this page is a kind of crustless quiche that contains onions, eggs, greens, raisins and “powder douce,” a common mixture of ginger, cinnamon and sugar (the original pumpkin spice!). Ymbre Days are quarterly sets of fasting days that mark the seasons of the Christian calendar. Because they fall outside of Lent, they were considered moderate fast days: meat was prohibited, but eggs were not.

Ken Albala, Renaissance historian and food scholar at the University of the Pacific. Check out his Food Rant.


Check out Ken Albala’s explorations of world cuisines, his cookbooks and his Great Courses on food and history.

Knowledge about fast days and how to put meals together would have been passed down orally, by peasant families and royal kitchen staffs, without the use of cookbooks. For one thing, most cooks weren’t literate. “We learn by looking and hearing and smelling, and not approximating through words,” Albala says. In fact, the whole notion of learning through cookbooks is a practice that may not last much longer, Albala believes.

“I think in the future we’ll have interactive videos, or some kind of instructional media where you can stop and ask questions, look closely and zoom in,” Albala says. “Perhaps something that will know what ingredients you have in the kitchen, know what kind of equipment you have, will adjust for your altitude or your allergies and could make working recipes for you. I think probably in our lifetime we’ll see cookbooks go extinct, or they’ll just be a rare, interesting artifact for people who like to collect them.”

Are you moving away from cookbooks to other kinds of instructional media? Which cookbook taught you the most? Tweet us @foodcityorg.

Recipe: Tracking the Ingredients for Charlotte Russe in 1891

Recipe: Tracking the Ingredients for Charlotte Russe in 1891

Fifty years after Austin was founded, a group of women at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church gathered recipes from the women in the community and published the city’s first cookbook.

The Austin History Center has one of three known copies of “Our Home Cookbook,” published in 1891. Editors Medora Thornton and Lucy Lanier Davis gathered more than 300 recipes from 87 women in the capital city. In 2015, the Austin History Center republished a facsimile copy called Austin’s First Cookbook, with accompanying historical essays about the original book, the women who owned it and the women who contributed the recipes. We asked Mike Miller, who led the research effort behind the book, to help us dissect one of the recipes for Charlotte Russe to learn more about how food moved in Texas in the 1890s.

Charlotte Russe

This is one of six Charlotte Russe recipes in the book. Who was Charlotte Russe? Common lore has it that French chef Marie-Antione Carême (1784–1833) created the dish, named after Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of George IV. The word “russe” is French for “Russian,” and though Carême came to know the popular princess while working for King George, she died in childbirth while he was working for the Russian Czar Alexander I, and he created this dish in her honor. Most recipes include the molded ladyfingers and custard or Bavarian Cream, such as this recipe, but a simpler version of sponge cake, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry is sometimes also called a Charlotte Russe.

Sponge cake

Egg-heavy cakes were ubiquitous in this era. There are nine sponge cake recipes in this cookbook, including two different handwritten versions from the owner of the book. “Sponge” has long referred to the appearance of a cake lightened with whisked egg whites instead of yeast, and the batter is sometimes baked into elongated cakes called ladyfingers. Many claim sponges as a foundation of French cuisine, but Gervase Markham refers to sponge cake in her 1618 cookbook, The English Huswife, Containing the inward and outward Vertues Which ought to be in a Complete Woman.

Mrs. Littlefield

Alice Tiller Littlefield was the wife of George Littlefield, a Confederate officer who went on to become a banker. After the war, the Littlefields were one of the richest families in Austin, and although Alice Littlefield submitted 13 recipes to the book, including this one and another for Charlotte Russe, she didn’t do much cooking. According to her letters, she hired many cooks and didn’t keep them long. These recipes were likely theirs, though we don’t know the cooks’ names or backgrounds.

Farina kettle

Double boilers such as the farina kettle were used to heat milk, cream or other liquids without scorching them. “Farina” refers to the cereal grains that cooked so well using this utensil. This patent is from 1897, several years after the publication of this recipe, but farina kettles and other kitchen gadgets gained popularity after the industrial manufacturing boom that followed the Civil War. Then, railroads could move freely from north to south, and capital was again available for manufacturing.


The Texas sugar industry took off after the first refinery opened near Houston in 1879 on a plantation that had been growing sugarcane since 1843, according to food writer M.M. Pack. Eventually, that company became Imperial Sugar Company, which built a town called Sugar Land so its employees could have housing, schools and even retail outlets and medical care.

Cox’s gelatine

Cox was one of three well-known gelatin brands at the time. Before production was standardized, women had to make their own gelatin from animal bones, mostly horse and sometimes cattle. Gelatin from the New York-based Cox Gelatine Company [sic] was originally made in Scotland. The arrival of the railroad in Austin in 1871, and refrigerated rail cars about ten years later, made it much easier for Austinites to expand their ingredients list beyond what could be produced locally.