Crickets, cotton candy on the menu at Bugfest

Event whets curiosity (if not the appetites) of young naturalists

September 23, 2001|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

What does a European home cricket, lightly fried in sunflower oil, taste like?

Justin Maffett didn't want to find out yesterday at Baltimore's Carrie Murray Nature Center in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.

"It would taste like spinach," said the 7-year-old from Baltimore, who instead opted for a clump of pink cotton candy.

The fried crickets were about the only thing Justin wasn't curious about at the center's second Bugfest.

Like most of the children who attended the free event, he is fascinated by animals, insects in particular. He walked around the center, peering into display cases full of exotic insects, pressing his nose against snake tanks and chasing bugs with a butterfly net.

The event also included cockroach races, nature walks and crafts. Organizers hope it will heighten children's interest in bugs and give even the most squeamish a chance to appreciate insects.

"They have a sense of wonder right now that we can really take advantage of," said Lloyd Tydings, a naturalist at the center who is also the chef behind the fried crickets.

Many of the children at the event appeared to be well on their way to becoming insect experts.

Nine-year-old Daniel Haynes heard about the event and asked his mother, Mila, to drive an hour from their home near Hagerstown to the center.

"We keep going through and walking around," his mother said with a smile. Two shelves of the family's freezer are full of bugs that her son has caught, she said. "All I can do is keep encouraging his interest. ... He knows more than I do already."

But surely a child who loves bugs so much would want to know what one tastes like. Right?

"No," Daniel said, shaking his head and crinkling his nose. "It would taste like a crunchy bean."

Some volunteers were slightly envious of the children's early interest.

Phil Keane, a Baltimore native who displayed and answered questions about the 120 species of butterflies he has caught in Maryland, said he didn't get interested in bugs until college. Since then, he has spent many weekends chasing butterflies through fields with a net, a hobby he said has taught him about land use and environmental issues.

"If they see a bug in the kitchen, most kids think it's something to spray," Keane said. "It's hard to develop an understanding of the world around you unless you start early."

Still, most children weren't curious enough to try a fried cricket, at least not without encouragement. "Most are squeamish. They won't eat one until someone else does," Tydings said.

Despite exhortations from volunteers to try the crickets, which taste like pistachio nuts and are standard fare in Thailand, Africa, and South America, most children stayed away - until 7-year-old Sarah House of Baltimore shuffled up, pinched a bug between her thumb and forefinger and dropped it in her mouth. She chewed slowly, her eyes narrowed. She finally swallowed.

"Not bad," she pronounced.

"Really?" other children said, edging forward and reaching for the plate.

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