Archive for March, 2015

Snacking on a Pinch of Ants


ants in hand

Spring weather came swooping in and whittled the snow away in just a matter of days. Before the snow was gone, I had taken my woodcutting tools into he woods for an hour or two of putting up firewood. After cutting a large windfall oak, I turned off the growling chain saw, took off my helmet and began the maul work of splitting the oak. In a short time I was hatless and into a rhythm.

As I worked my way through the increasingly larger rounds of oak, towards what had been the base of the tree, I paused, feeling the satisfaction, of watching the oak split into two pieces. As it flew apart, the soft snow on the ground became peppered with winter dormant carpenter ants that tumbled from their upended cold weather sanctuary. I set the maul down to cool off. The maul needed no cooling but I certainly did.

maul and ants

I leaned close to inspect the stilled insects. Not a movement from any of them. I felt a little guilty exposing them to winter. Tumbling out of their gallery, they would either die ofexposure or from foraging small birds, like chickadees and downy woodpeckers, that sometimes are attracted to the “thunks” of my rising and falling maul. They have learned that a pile of freshly split oak oftentimes reveals calories in the form of insects.

Feeling a slight pang of hunger, I reached over and took a good pinch of ants and without hesitation popped them into my mouth. When eating insects in a society that rarely intentionally eats these arthropods, it is best to not dilly dally and just go for it. The crunch, crunch, crunch of my molarsrendering these insects to a very quick death was followed but an explosion of flavor that is not unlike a powerful Sweet Tart candy.  The blended sour taste with the sweet flavor danced on my tongue and actually served as a rejuvenating break during my chores.

Carpenter ants are classified in the family of ants called Formiciidae. The origin of the family name comes from formic acid which, in my mini-dose, gave me the blast of “ultra-sweet-tartness.”

Formic acid plays an important role for the ant’s defense. It is an effective deterrent for aggressive threats to the ant. Some biologists wonder if the bird behavior known as “anting,” where the bird grasps ants in their beak and rub them all over their feathers, is an action that rubs formic acid on them to help keep parasites off the birds.


ants on oak chunk

Besides the jolt of surprising and energizing taste, I was ingesting a form of food that is energy and nutrient dense. Many insects are equal if not superior to conventional livestock, eggs and even milk in delivered energy and garnered nutrients.

Intentionally consuming insects this is abhorrent to our upstanding picnic practices. At the picnic table we often flutter our hands and fingers over heaping summer bowls of potato salads and other delectables to keep curious insects away from our outdoor feasts. Perhaps we should be attracting the fresh “toppings” to enhance our cuisine. But habits are hard to break and we are products of our upbringing.

Eating insects, known formally as entomophagy, is not a common practice in Western Society but a recent UN Report entitled Edible Insects Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security estimates that two billion people on the planet regularly eat nearly 2,000 species of  insects. The report’s Forward lays out the premise of the report.“It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accomodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”

The word insect derives from the Latin word insectum, meaning “with a notched or divided body”, literally “cut into sections”, from the fact that insects’ bodies have three parts. (Head, Thorax and Abdomen) Given that these small livestock, are more efficient at creating protein than beef, with far less global impact on natural resources such as water and acreage required, we might do well to lean towards insectum. . . or more aptly put, “insect-Mmmmmmmm.”

According to the UN Report,the most commonly consumed insects globally are beetles (31%), caterpillars from butterflies and moths (18%), bees, wasps and ants (14%), grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13%), cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers scale insects and true bugs (10%), termites (3%), dragonflies (3%), flies (2%) and all other orders (5%). 

With more than 12,500 species classified and more out there, ants are the most numerous insect group in the world.

World renowned biologist and author, E. O. Wilson, has spent over 60 years at Harvard University studying ants. He is fond of reminding students that ants work together, share food and send their elders into battle to protect their young. Furthermore, these amazing insects make up more than one quarter (25%) of the world’s insect biomass. And almost unbelievably, Wilson and his colleagues estimate the world’s ant population, estimated at one million trillion at any one moment weigh roughly the same as all human beings.  

In Minnesota the largest ant species are generally one of the several species of carpenter ants. Carpenter ants are so-called because of their habit of excavating wood to make their galleries and egg-laying chambers. These social insects DO NOT eat wood. They are primarily insect eaters.

We have found a few renegade carpenter ants that patrol our kitchen for bits of sweet syrup, jelly or honey. These innocent trespassers were likely carried in by us when we hauled in armloads of firewood. Once indoors, they warm up and awaken from their winter dormancy and begin to explore for food.

A couple hundred yards away from my wood cutting and ant-feasting is a wrecked birch tree that has been excavated by a pair of pileated woodpeckers all winter. Carpenter ants are essential to the survival of these largest of Minnesota woodpeckers. The long troughs carved out of standing trees are oftentimes near the base of the tree where the colony of ants tends to have their primary or parent colony. Outlying smaller colonies are called satellite nests.

For the time being the local pileated pair need not worry about the slow, two-legged anteater. He has the luxury of exercising his curiosity more than foraging for his food.

A Bread Economy

bread on tabletwo loaves on racktwo loaves on rack

bread on table

bread on table

While shuffling along the potluck supper line at my cousin’s wedding I paused frequently to scoop. I found myself worrying that the surface area of my plate was not equivalent to the desires of my palate. I had to choose carefully as the choices and arrays of foods were mighty.

I came to the section of breads and there was a label that caught my eye. “Grandma Fran’s Orange and Anise Rye Bread.” The baker, a man named Duane, known to me and most others as “Whitey” is my uncle’s brother. He lives only a handful of miles northwest of our house. So given that I know the baker and I remember the late Grandma Fran as a woman easy to smile, I gently placed a slice on my heap of celebratory grub.

Half an hour after eating my small feast, I spotted Whitey so I waddled over to him to commend him on his bread baking skills. It turns out he has been baking the bread for years and has built up quite a reputation in the community. I soon learned that his offerings always disappear whenever his church has a bake sale.

“Come on over sometime and I’ll give you a lesson,” he offered. Of course I smiled and nodded.

In two weeks time, I was standing next to Whitey in his kitchen. We were surrounded with sacks of flour, bowls, measuring cups and spoons, graters, mortar and pestle, a pastry sheet to keep the mess of kneading bread off the counter.

But before we began he insisted on a ceremonial fueling. He poured us cups of coffee and what else . . .two pieces of toasted rye bread with Whitey’s rhubarb/strawberry jam.

Soon he had me grating orange peel, grinding anise seeds, preparing the yeast, mixing molasses into the blend of sugar, powdered milk and molasses before adding the rye and white flour.

He explained that as a young man he had badgered his mother into teaching him how to bake her famous bread. Whitey was the youngest of four sons, so it was likely that Fran was pleased that he showed an interest.

Whitey and I each worked on a batch of five loaves of bread. Finally it was time to let each of our batches sit in a warm place to rise for a couple hours. My rotund flour mass sat tucked in a big covered Tupperware bowl in a warm bath of water in the laundry sink.

By this time we had worked up a hunger again and so Whitey fed me another of his signature items . . .northern pike fish cakes. Excellent.

After eating, things had progressed with the flour and we began the physical part of baking bread. No machines here, Grandma Fran would never approve. We each dumped our flour in front of us, rolled up our sleeves and began the work of adding flour and kneading.

“More flour,” barked Sgt. Whitey. “You’ll know when you are there.”

I could feel the pleasant to almost painful workout my forearms were getting while I dug my fingers and kneaded the flour.

“More flour. You’ll know when you are there.”

And so I kept on. I was getting into a groove like when you are on a long arduous run or bike ride. You find a zone where you are able to displace the pain.

“More flour. You’ll know when you are there.”

My brow was breaking out in a sweat line and I wondered if the batch of bread would be tainted if I added more salt that dripped off my forehead. Luckily Whitey called a halt. We then divided our respective batches into five equal loafs. He showed me the geometrical trick in dividing a large round of bread dough into five similar bodies.

We sculpted and primped our loaves before placing them carefully in the greased round pans. Each rounded, “smooth as a baby’s butt” loaf was covered with dishtowels and placed in a slightly warm oven.

By now we needed to cool down so we bundled and booted up to head outdoors. It was on this stroll that I learned another value of baking Grandma Fran’s bread.

Whitey directed me to his evaporating cooking set-up when he boils down his maple syrup in early spring. He showed me how he built it up with cement blocks that he had procured a few miles away near Weber.

“Guess what I paid the guy for the cement blocks?”

I shrugged and Whitey smiled, “Some loaves of bread.”

Then as he showed me the welded steel door that is part of his wood burning syrup-cooking operation. It was custom done.

“Guess what I paid the welder for his work?”

Another smile, “Yep, some fresh bread.”

Strolling to his garden we noticed some deer tracks. This brought up the subject of hunting. Whitey has a yellow lab that has been his primary pheasant hunting partner. Surrounded by farmland, sloughs and woodlots, Whitey is able to secure permission to hunt on neighboring lands. He never leaves his house on a day of hunting without several loaves of bread in the back seat of his truck. He smiles when he shares that he is often urged to return for a hunt.

He has even bartered bread for other foodstuffs. At the above -mentioned church bake sale, there is a woman who makes equally legendary homemade pecan pie. They always make sure they keep one of their baked items from the sale table so they can exchange them before heading home.

We returned into the house, delicately lifted the bread shrouds away and then put them into the now-hot oven for half an hour or so of baking.

I went home with five treasured gifts of manna that night. I’m thinking of giving Whitey some . . . . No, that won’t work.


Just days ago, maybe a month after my lesson, I tried my first attempt at baking without my mentor at my side. I’m so proud of my efforts that I took photos.

Yesterday we got a fresh dumping of 3-4 inches of snow and wouldn’t you know my good neighbor had me plowed out before I could get out and shove snow around. So even though the wind-chill is a bit nippy, I’m going to take one of my loaves of bread for a one-way walk.

Thanks for the lessons on bread baking and generosity Whitey.






His mom, Frances Sundberg, moved with her family from central MN when she was 18 years old,

Didn’t take long and she was dating a native I. Falls fellow named “Swede”Clarence Sundberg.

She had four sons. So taught Whitey how to bake the bread after he badgered her on how to bake it.

She never measureded out ingredients. A bit of this a bunch of that and son on.


First time he baked he kept asking, “Isn’t that enough flour?” More flour.

“You’ll know when you’re there.”