"How do they taste?" one of the women asked, making a face. "Are they yucky?"
"No, they are really crispy. And salty," the man replied before slipping a small handful of the insects into his mouth.
Occidental Seafood and Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue, which was serving as the site of a 3-hour, pop-up Pestaurant offering a menu consisting entirely of cooked insects.
The event, which was titled "Pestaurant on Pennsey," was sponsored by Ehrlich, a DC-area pest control company. The 1st Pestaurant event was held last year in London. This year the DC lunch at the Occidental was one of 12 locations around the globe that were offering insect dining.
Company officials said that one reason for the worldwide event was to try to make bugs and insects a little more appetizing to the general public. A 2013 report from the Unite Nations called consumer disgust "one of the largest barriers to the adoption of insects as viable sources of protein in many Western countries". It also named "insect farming" as a potential way to "address food and feed insecurity" across the world.
But the free fun afternoon lunch also had a more immediate social impact. Erlich donated $5 to DC Central Kitchen, an organization which feeds the homeless and the poor, for every person who sampled bugs from the 3 insect-laden tables.
On the savory table, the wait staff was serving roasted crickets, Mexican spice mealworms, roasted mealworms, buffalo worms, and roasted locusts. On the sweet table, the offerings included scorpion lollipops, chocolate ant rounds, mealworm lollipops, ant candy, and ant and cricket lollipops.
|Chef Rodney Scruggs|
As television, print, and online cameramen recorded the scene, Scruggs said the environmental and charitable focus of the event appealed to the restaurant. "It's for good causes, but it's playful, fun, and whimsical, too," he said. "It's really a win-win for everyone".
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Chirping About a Cricket Contest
I had intended just to come, eat a few bugs, and blog about it. But then I saw the sign.
"Next ... Cricket Eating Competition 1:15 p.m.," it said. "Your participation is a $20 donation to DC Central Kitchen. Win Prizes."
It really didn't take a lot of consideration. I had already downed a grasshopper burger and 2 big helpings of savory bugs, so I had no aversion to adding crickets to the list. I think DC Central Kitchen is one of the city's best charities, so that was attractive. And while I would be a newbie to the world of competitive cricket eating, I did have some experience in related fields. As a young reporter doing a 1st-person story, I had been the July 4th South Jersey watermelon seed spitting champion back in the 1980s for all of 2 hours until my record was broken. And, since retiring to DC, I had blogged about the 2012 July 4th Z-Burger battle bash.
As I finished the last bites of a grasshopper burger, I told my wife to sign me up.
I took my seat at the table with about 20 other competitors. On my right was a legislative aide from Capitol Hill. On my left was a young Environmental Protection Agency worker. Both gave me some pause for concern. I mean who knows more about bugging than the government. And the EPA deals all the time with environmental pests. But I actually thought my toughest competition might come from the recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who said he loved to compete in eating contests.
The head judge, who came all the way from England (or at least had a British accent) gave the directions. They seemed simple enough. We would each be handed 3 small cups of dried crickets. The winner would be the person who downed all 3 cups the quickest. If any crickets spilled on the table, you would have to consume those, too. You would have to raise your hand and then open your mouth to prove that all the insects had been completely swallowed. You couldn't drink anything while eating.
The judge asked if we were ready. We all nodded. "Alright begin," he said.
I learned quite a bit about cricket consuming in the next 3 minutes. First, there are almost as many ways of eating crickets in a cricket-eating competition as there are crickets. There is the dainty, grab one-by-one style. There is the 2-handed, 2-cup plunge. There is the dump-the-whole-cup down-at-once and then try to swallow method.
Then there are the faces of the contestants. They are interesting to say the least. They are also distracting. In fact, I became more interested in watching the faces than I did in eating. Or at least that is what I told myself. Actually, I realized after my 1st cup of crickets that I wasn't cut out for hard-core cricket chomping and chewing. I did manage to down a 2nd cup. But by that time, the winner had long finished and I was battling for a 2nd or 3rd place finish that I really didn't have the stomach for.
But even though I emerged beaten, I was not downhearted for long. A few steps away was the perfect cure for taking the sting out of a lost bug battle - I grabbed another of Chef Scruggs' really tasty grasshopper burgers. However not before having 2 glasses of water and a Coke. If nothing else, I now knew that cricket eating is the saltiest work this side of competitive salt-shaker downing.
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