The sight of Michelle Ridley gagging and choking is pretty much what you’d expect from someone who just tried chewing on a beetle larva.
Chills convulsed Ridley’s body, accompanied by moans and whimpers of revulsion, as the novice insect-eater spat out fragments of the masticated grub.
A Wake Tech Community College student, Ridley was among the scores of visitors who lined up to sample insect-infused conconctions at Raleigh’s annual BugFest fair Saturday.
“That was extreme,” Ridley said, catching her breath. “It’s really gummy, and you can kind-of feel it popping in your mouth.”
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Cafe Insecta, as the bug-eating emporium is known, is one of the more exotic attractions at BugFest, its grossness defying every rule of American gastronomy. Yet there they were – scores of visitors in cargo pants, baseball caps and spandex tights, very eager to give insect-eating the good old college try.
The fearless ones savored grubs, mealworms and crickets as ingredients in fried rice, grits, breads and ice cream. Some greedily popped handfuls of toasted mealworm carcasses into their mouth.
“This represents the very pinnacle of man’s experimentation with nature,” professed Matt Morain, a marketing writer with the Red Hat technology company. “And the height of folly.”
There’s a lot more to BugFest than bug-feasting. Other attractions include cockroach races, stinkbug exhibitions, dung beetle presentations, and ... you get the idea. It’s a dream-come-true for a kid, topped off with face-painting and a bounce house and ice cream accentuated with chocolate-covered crickets.
In its 18th year, BugFest attracts more than 30,000 visitors in its single-day lifespan as an annual tradition in downtown Raleigh.
By early afternoon Saturday, food preparers ran out of crickets, as demand for edible bugs was running high.
Ashley Cogdell, the chef of the Chirba Chirba food tent, was busy seasoning fried rice with the remnants of 3,000 crickets. Her culinary secret: Toast the crickets overnight in an oven at 150 degrees. She described the piquant taste of cricket husks as “nutty.”
“We’ve had people come back and say the fried rice is the best they’ve ever had,” Cogdell said.
Crickets, being small and brittle, blend in well with rice dishes. The downside is cricket appendages, which have a tendency to get waylaid en route to your esophagus.
“Definitely got a leg in my teeth,” Morain said. “This is the kind of thing reserved for motorcycle travel.”
But there’s no camouflaging a mealworm or a grub on your plate. They are at least 1-inch long, and the sight of several layers of grubs adorning your meal presents an entomological Medusa you will not soon forget.
Alex Parker, a senior at UNC studying computer science, likened the grubs to eating shrimp.
“We could do a lot for the food problem if we just started eating grubs,” Parker mused between bites. “We need to break through the cultural and social norms.”
Many fellow connoisseurs echoed the enthusiasm.
“I have zero problem with this,” said Jeff Parkin, a supply chain manager with Republic Wireless, who was delectating upon a dish of charred mealworms.
“Mealworms are fine,” Parkin declared. “But I hate the grits.”