Meet Max Ries, Who Brought Edible Insects to 1940s Chicago


There’s been a surge of interest in entomophagy, the human consumption of insects. Eighty percent of the world’s population already does it. Even in Israel, a recent locust swarm got foodies salivating, even though it’s unclear whether–or more precisely, which–locusts are kosher.

Americans have been eating insects for decades, and one of its chief proponents was a German-Jewish textile manufacturer. Max Ries set up a cheese import business out of the back of his station wagon in Chicago in the early 1940s. He indulged the American fascination with exotic foods by selling tinned tiger and elephant meat obtained from zoos, as well as kangaroo and reindeer steaks. He also had a flair for the theatrical; he “was slim and dashing; he wore handmade suits and twirled his cigars.”

Reese Finer Foods made its profit from the sale of canned water chestnuts, artichoke hearts, and baby corn. But to attract attention it sold fried Japanese golden butterflies and chocolate-covered South American giant ants. The company even hired Bela Lugosi (aka Dracula) to help get rid of its overstock of its Spooky Foods gift sets. The packages, which included Mexican fried agave worms and fried grasshoppers, promptly sold out.

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