Wooster twp.: If you’re reading this column over breakfast, you might want to skip over to the sports section.
Go ahead, I’ll wait. You can come back when you’re done eating.
Today we’re talking about bugs. Edible ones, to be exact.
Ick, you’re probably thinking.
That’s what I thought when I found out I’d been assigned to Cafe Insecta during my volunteer stint at A Bug’s World, a program earlier this week at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster Township. Over two days, the center’s entomology department — its insect researchers — invited in groups of first- through third-graders for fun and educational events revolving around bugs.
Excuse me, insects. Entomologists are very picky about their terminology. Bugs are a specific type of insect, I was reminded.
OARDC’s entomologists are also a slightly wacky bunch, if David Nielsen is any indication. Nielsen is an emeritus professor who came back to campus this week as Cafe Insecta’s Chef Dave.
Nielsen loves bugs enough to have spent the better part of his life studying them. He also loves them enough to eat them — and perhaps more impressively, to persuade skittish kids to eat them, too.
You want to get the attention of a bunch of squirmy schoolchildren? Nielsen knows how.
Hold a live meal worm between your lips. Let the kids watch it wriggle. Suck it in and chew it up.
The eyes in the audience would grow huge every time he’d do it during the sessions where I volunteered. Teachers and chaperones would gasp. Kids would either screw up their faces in disgust or squeal in delight.
The thing is, Americans are in the minority in their distaste for insects, Nielsen told his charges. More than 500 kinds of insects are used as food by people all over the world.
And you may not want to know this, but you eat insects, too. Nielsen pointed out that all sorts of packaged foods, from ketchup to cornmeal, contain insect parts, and we blithely consume them all the time.
For his demonstration, Nielsen fried up meal worms, wax moth larvae and crickets on hot plates and offered them for nibbling. He also made available packaged meal worms and crickets in flavors such as Mexican spice and bacon and cheese, as well as chocolate-covered insects, “chocolate chirpie chip cookies” and bug juice. He tried to snow the kids into believing the bug juice was blood squeezed from insects collected at the research center, but really, it was fruit juice from the grocery story. And the cookies were just store-bought chocolate chip cookies, but remember what he said about packaged food?
Nielsen had help on the frying pans from Kathy Bielek, who works with the organics program at OARDC “and got promoted to cook last year,” she said with a grin.
Bielek had a little of the same smooth salesmanship as Nielsen. When volunteer Diane Kozak steeled herself to try a fried cricket, Bielek told her they tasted like popcorn.
“Really?” Kozak asked.
“That’s what they tell me,” Bielek replied.
Bielek may not have been into eating crickets, but she did pop cooked meal worms into her mouth frequently to get the kids to follow suit. About half did — some timidly, some with bravado.
One boy even claimed to have tried a live meal worm. “I ate his guts!” he boasted to his admiring friends.
I ate them, too. After they’d been cooked, that is.
Once Kozak and fellow volunteer Brenda Fernandez had taken the plunge, I succumbed to peer pressure. Willing myself not to gag, I bit gingerly into a fried meal worm and discovered it was crispy and buttery, like a potato chip crumb without the salt. I graduated to eating bigger larvae and soon was popping a chocolate-covered cricket into my mouth.
It reminded me of Nestle Crunch.
Not icky at all.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at marybeth.ohio.com.