Something spicy and greasy filled the air at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center yesterday afternoon.
"Smells good," said 9-year-old Caitlin O'Connor as she reached over to grab a handful of "caterpillar crunch," a pan-fried mix of pecans, cumin, cayenne pepper -- and mealworms.
"The bad thing is that I don't like nuts. So I'll just eat the bug," she said, popping the inch-long rust-colored worm into her mouth. "Tastes like Japanese food -- Japanese chicken," she exclaimed.
Twenty-five other culinary daredevils tasted "caterpillar crunch," "wax-worm corn fritters" and "chocolate-covered crickets" at a demonstration at the Cockeysville nature center yesterday. Another session on eating bugs will be conducted today.
"If you think about it, a mealworm is not really different from a small shrimp," explained Adrienne van den Beemt, 19, an Oregon Ridge counselor and amateur bug chef. "Like anything, they take a bit getting used to. Some say mealworms taste like creamy shrimp."
The idea of a two-hour seminar on how to catch and eat bugs was Ms. van den Beemt's concoction. For the past six months, she has researched the subject and become an avid reader of the Food Insects Newsletter published by the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
To prepare worm dishes, Ms. van den Beemt advised freezing them first. "This is the most humane way to kill them," she said.
She advised taking the legs and the wings off crickets and grasshoppers because they're "scratchy." What about the fuzz on caterpillars? someone asked. "They should be singed off," said Ms. van den Beemt.
The insects are then added to regular recipes -- like adding nuts to cookie batter. For example, the "wax-worm corn fritters" are just plain fritters with soft white caterpillars poking out of them.
Wax-worms "were kind of juicy -- like a fruit candy with juice in the middle," said Brentt Holmes, 14, of Columbia. "When you bite into them, all the juice comes out."
Yesterday's session had families swiping butterfly nets in a stalky field to catch grasshoppers and crickets. But the variety of insects tasted -- the mealworms, wax-worms and crickets -- all can be bought from animal food stores, says Ms. van den Beemt.
Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is common around the world except in the United States and Europe, say entomologists. Since humans have roamed the earth, they have been eating insects, ranging from termites in Africa to honeybees in Nepal to grasshoppers in Japan.
An issue of the Food Insects Newsletter reports that 80 percent of the world's population eats insects intentionally -- and 100 percent eat them unintentionally.
Most insects are eaten as a way to supplement diets and are even considered delicacies.
By weight, termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, weevils, houseflies and spiders are better sources of protein than beef, chicken, pork or lamb, according to the Entomological Society of America. Insects are also sanitary, low in cholesterol and low in fat.
"Americans have negative impressions of insects and chances are you aren't going to eat them," says Justin Schmidt, an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Arizona.
"Now you look at crabs and lobsters. Do you know what they eat? Everything that dies," notes Mr. Schmidt. "But you won't eat a mealworm that eats grass and nice things we eat."
But not all bugs are edible; nor are they tasty. "Insects that taste bad, they usually advertise it," warned Ms. van den Beemt. "If you see an insect with colors, chances are you don't want to pop it in your mouth." So, for example, avoid monarch butterflies, she advised.
Yesterday's bug bites gained followers. Many asked for recipes and places to buy bugs.
"I like the idea of getting food from another source," said Phyllis Borneman of Timonium, who brought her two grandchildren along. "All three [recipes] were very good. The corn fritters reminded me a lot of soft crabs. It's good eating."