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Bug-eaters chow down
at Pequot Museum exhibit
David Gracer knows it seems gross.
He is well aware, he told his audience Saturday at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, that it goes against everything we've been taught.
But the community college teacher from Providence reassured them: Entomophagy - the art of eating bugs - is not quite as strange as one would think.
Gracer began his presentation - part of the grand opening of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum's "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects" exhibit - by asking if anyone in the room had ever consumed a bug.
"Were you riding a bike at the time, or was it deliberate?" he added.
Save for one situation involving a tequila-soaked worm - and one or two others with exotically inclined taste buds - most had not.
Gracer himself didn't sample his first bug until about 12 years ago - some cricket and mealworm snacks from edible insect manufacturer Hotlix, a gift from a college buddy.
They weren't good, he said. But they piqued his interest.
Now, Gracer is part of what he calls "the movement" - a following of entomophagists who see insect consumption as the wave of the future.
To the delight (or dismay) of the crowd, Gracer named a few of the 60 to 70 species he's consumed, among them crickets, caterpillars and giant water bugs from Thailand whose chest meat, he said, is "amazing."
Waxworms are like pine nuts, he said, rich and buttery.
Cicadas are best when they're freshly snatched from their tree homes and still soft, before their wings have hardened. They taste like asparagus.
Stinkbugs are delicious, he said, despite the name. Entomophagists enjoy them the way some people enjoy stinky cheese.
Ladybugs may be cute, Gracer said, but they're bitter.
The three kinds of edible cockroaches range from tasty to nasty. American cockroaches, he said, are the worst.
And he does not recommend scorpions unless they are artfully prepared - say, atop a mound of goat cheese, wrapped in an endive leaf and drizzled with honey.
But the laundry list wasn't just about bragging rights. Already a staple in other parts of the world, bug-eating has a science behind it, Gracer said, that says insects as food makes a lot of sense. Nutrient-rich, many of the 2,000 edible insect species are filled with calcium, iron, phosphorus and B vitamins.
Despite his enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge, Gracer said he still eats "regular" food more often than the tiny, many-legged kind. With the exception of one month in 2008 when he took bug-eating to an Olympic level, reserving 75 percent of his diet for bugs, he eats them maybe two or three times a month, or about 2 pounds a year.
Most of his colleagues are the same, he said.
Then it was the audience's turn.
Gracer opened a Ziploc bag filled with crickets that had been delivered to him alive and emerged from a night in his freezer as food - the "good-karma kill method," he said.
At urging of the crowd of wide-eyed children gathered around the stage, he plucked one from the bag and popped it in his mouth raw.
The rest he tossed into sizzling saucepans of olive oil, sautéing them and mixing them with rice.
As Gracer spooned the final product into small bowls to pass around to the brave souls in the room - mostly the under-5-feet crowd, their parents cowering - it didn't take long for the squeals to begin.
Some were encouraging, if a bit pushy - "Put it in your mouth and chew!" - while some were expressions incredulous horror: "You did not just eat that!"
Brooke Ford of Southbridge, Mass., pleaded with her 8-year-old niece, Summer, to just try it already.
"I'm scared," Summer told her, clutching her spoon and wincing. "What if I get legs in my teeth?"
"Chew it with your eyes closed," Brooke told her.
Piling more rice into her spoon to pad the cricket, Summer gave in when bribed with a granola bar. She stuck the spoon in her mouth. She grimaced, reddened, teared up.
She spit it out.
Others had better luck, telling Gracer afterward that the taste reminded them of French fries or corn.
Michelle Bitton, leader of a Boy Scout group from Massapequa, N.Y., washed hers down with Pepsi with nary a flinch.
"Very good," she said.