Incredible edibles Insects: A Howard County woman is a taster for a California firm with a peculiar but profitable line of edible insects and arachnids.

September 27, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

The crickets and worms preserved in "amber" are delicious, but Mary Ann Murphey hasn't yet worked up to munching on the scorpion.

And while many people would gag and run for the sink if they bit into a piece of milk chocolate and found it full of crunchy insects, Murphey is not one of them: The Howard County resident became entomophagous out of loyalty to a childhood friend who is a candy-maker.

Murphey, who grew up in St. Louis and lives in the Howard County community of Highland, is among a dozen volunteer tasters for the novelty candies marketed by Larry Peterman, owner of the California-based Hotlix company.

The products sampled by Peterman's friends and relatives include everything from chocolate-covered crickets to bugs in clear, sugarless candy that looks like ancient amber.

Murphey, an artist and former elementary school teacher, said she never shied away from tasting her friend's latest offerings -- until the scorpion arrived.

"I'll probably do it eventually but I heard him say on the radio that they taste like rotten peanuts," she said, suggesting that no matter what, she won't give scorpion candy top marks when she returns her evaluation forms.

Bug candy, including chocolate-covered ants and honey bees, may be a novelty in the United States, but people have always eaten insects fornourishment, and entomophagous (bug-eating) societies thrive in Africa, Asia and Australia.

While buggy sweets may be good for laughs, there is serious research on the value of insects as human food.

Academic entries on entomophagy on the Internet include recipes for such mouth-watering dishes as pate made from mealworms, honey bees, locusts or silkworm larvae; mealworm patties and cake icing; banana worm bread; root worm or mealworm dip; and chocolate chirpie chip cookies, with dry-roasted crickets.

Murphey was introduced to insect delicacies by Peterman, with whom she grew up in a St. Louis neighborhood. He worked in her father's grocery store as a boy.

Peterman, who served in the Navy, worked for a chemical company in California, then opened a seafood restaurant. In 1982, he bought a small candy business that had as its main product a strongly flavored cinnamon sucker, which led to the name Hotlix.

He soon added peppermint, wild cherry and jalapeno pepper flavors and was a local success. When he tossed bugs into the mix and Newsweek picked up on it, his business went national, then international, Peterman said.

Murphey already had tasted the other lollipops and loved them. Then one day the exotica started to arrive. One box contained tequila suckers -- with worms in them, like bottles of the Mexican liquor.

"I said, "Oh, no, is this real? I'm not going to eat that thing,' " Murphey recalled. "Eventually, I just did."

After the suckers, she tasted such delicacies as toasted insect larva with Mexican spice, Cheddar cheese and barbecue flavoring; chocolate-dipped crickets and worms; brown and white chocolate with crunchy bugs; and, lately, the "amber" candy, containing crickets, worms and tiny fern fronds -- and now scorpions.

"People eat these things for the candy, not for the bugs -- they don't have much flavor. They're crispy and tasteless, like puffed wheat or pork rind, a bunch of nothing," Murphey said. "But he's always experimenting. The candy flavors are wonderful, like the cherry, apple and tequila."

Everything was fine, said Murphey, until the scorpion showed up recently and she recoiled.

The forms she fills out for Peterman seek comment on flavor, taste, texture, appearance and packaging of each product. A space for "comments and suggestions" is included, but Murphey hasn't decided what to say about the scorpions.

"I think he thought the whole thing would be a fad and that it would stop, but it's just grown bigger and bigger, all over the world. It's just one thing after another," Murphey said.

Peterson said his business booms at Halloween. "People love to give the candy out for trick or treat, and then we get calls from parents saying, 'My kid found a bug in the candy.' Usually they just want to know if it's safe to eat."

Prices range from 75 cents for a small packet of spiced insect larva to $1 for a cricket lick-it or apple worm sucker and $4 to $5 for the tequila sucker Shooter Pac, which includes a slice of lemon (candy) and a packet of (real) salt.

Peterman said women are among his best customers -- perhaps trying to test the machismo of their men. He said the Amber InsectNside candy sells worldwide through candy and gift shops, including at the Smithsonian Institution and Universal Studios Jurassic Park exhibit.

"Kids love it, and it fits in perfectly with Jurassic Park. When Smithsonian entomologists set up a dinner, they always eat insects," he said.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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