People have an almost primal reaction to insects. After all, they are the most alien-looking creatures we encounter on a regular basis. As Jeffrey Lockwood puts it at Popsci, “You could think of our fear and disgust of insects of being as a conspiracy of evolution and culture.” I myself feel a combination of fascination and disgust with insects, which is dependent on the type of insect I’m encountering and the context of said encounter. After all, it’s one thing to obsessively hunt insects in Animal Crossing, and another to have your mother scream while braiding your hair that your head is covered with bugs, prompting a call to the principal who came over and picked both bugs and eggs out of your hair at the kitchen table which then prompted an announcement over the school loudspeaker about there being an outbreak of lice and that no one in the second grade should be sharing coats or hats or brushes and everyone knows it’s you. Hypothetically speaking, of course. One thing to have a butterfly flit around you in the garden and another to have a horde of spiders flooding out of a cardboard box in your direction. I think that the Audobon Insectarium in New Orleans enjoys playing with this juxtaposition of fascination and repulsion, placing enormous scaled-up insect nightmares next to smaller, cuter real life versions with tiny presents and holiday trees in their enclosures.
The Insectarium must also enjoy getting a good shriek out of people. In the Richard C. Colton, Jr. Underground area, you walk into a very dimly lit room, where something promptly bursts out of the wall in your direction, which caused Jason to squeal like a little girl and brought vivid flashbacks of Tremors screaming to the forefront of my mind. The entire rest of the underground area, I was on edge, waiting for something else to move or jump or slither past…so of course, nothing did.
However, all of that anxiety really works up an appetite, so thankfully, I was right on time for the opening of The Bug Buffet, where chefs whip up various dishes containing insects to teach you about the environmental benefits of eating insect protein, and you get to try any and all of them that your little heart desires. I decided I was going to try and set aside everything I’d been taught about the grossness of bug eating and take it on its own merits (or lack therof, depending on how things turned out.) After all, I’ve almost certainly unknowingly eaten any number of insect parts or rat hairs or any number of things that would make me heave if I thought about them too closely, so it probably wasn’t going to kill me*.
On the menu for that day:
- fried waxworms with cinnamon and sugar
- cajun crickets
- fried waxworms with taco seasoning and chili powder
- chocolate “chirp” cookies with roasted crickets
- cream cheese and onion cricket dip
- mango chutney with poached waxworms
- tomato salsa with crab-boiled mealworms
The only thing I didn’t try was the salsa, and that was out of a greater objection to the cilantro in the salsa than the mealworms themselves. If you can get out of the “oh gross, bugs” mindset, they taste kind of like nothing. Maybe the crickets had a slightly nutty flavor, maybe. Mostly, they just take on the flavor of whatever is around them, which is good in the case of apple pie waxworms and maybe not so great in the case of devil-weed mealworm salsa. While I daintily picked out a solitary waxworm and apple combo to place on a wheat thin (the preferred cracker of insect-eaters everywhere), I realized I had the chefs to myself so I could annoy them with my particular brand of hard-hitting questions. I learned that all of their insect supply is farmed and shipped to them, which I found relieving as I was envisioning them just sweeping the dead and sick and just plain unsociable ones out of the bottom of the cages–you know, waste not, want not and all that. I also learned that, no, neither of them have witnessed someone take a bite of something and start dry-heaving right there in line, setting off a vomit chain reaction that led back to the entrance of the Insectarium and right up Canal Street all the way to Bourbon. They were also more than happy to provide me with information about their supplier in case I was interested in hosting some lavish insect eating affair in my own home.
Along the walls in the Bug Buffet, they also had some photos of insect cuisine that I think I would find a lot more, ahem, challenging to consume. Things that would take more than one bite to eat and which I’m imagining would sort of ooze into one’s mouth like a fruit gusher…which aren’t even that pleasing as a fruit-based product, and would be even less palatable as bug goo. Look, I said I was working to set aside those prejudices, not that I was wholly successful and one step closer to being an all-around perfect human being.
And then, next to the door of the tiny termite cafe, they had this diorama that nearly made me lose my snacks. They can call it a roach’s christmas, but I feel a more apt title is “Christmas is ruined and for baby jesus’ sake, clean the kitchen” which I suppose is just a matter of semantics.
….and another hard no. Please and thank you, I would rather have lockjaw than drink whatever flakes off of a cockroach when it’s been boiled. If it works, though, a lifetime supply of tetanus remedy is really economical–you can step on rusty nails left and right and just keep using the same cockroach as those hardy little fuckers will survive the apocalypse and surely think nothing of a little boiling water, shaking it off and nonchalantly strolling away to go make a nest in your sandwich.
In the room dedicated to insect defenses, there was a box labeled “put your hand in here if you dare,” to teach you a lesson about how quickly a spider can strike. Both remembering the incident in the underground area, Jason passed, and I hovered in front of the box like the world’s largest and most afraid baby, moving my hand closer and then yanking it away. A kid witnessed this dilemma of adult babydom and rushed right over to cram his hand inside, screaming when the harmless puff of air went off and making everyone in the room collapse with laughter. Good thing it was him and not me, I may have thought. But never you worry, I got my comeuppance less than ten minutes later at their interactive video insect show, where the chair unexpectedly punches you in the back to simulate an insect sting and I shrieked like the devil himself had popped out of the ground in front of me and wanted to have a serious discussion about my potty mouth. So, if you’re counting, that’s no fewer than three screams in one museum, which is damn impressive for a museum. Maybe more on a crowded day at the bug buffet.
After all of that screaming, I was definitely ready for a more chill time in the Insectarium’s butterfly garden. Unfortunately, the butterfly garden was where every shrieking kid in the greater New Orleans area decided to hang out, grabbing butterflies out of the air and bellowing at the top of their lungs, while the employees fruitlessly tried to tell people to look with their eyes and not their hands. I wonder if the same thing would be an issue in a roach room, or if everyone would still be screaming and touching, but for different reasons.
*The same cannot be said of those who have shellfish allergies–you may also be allergic to insects so eat with caution if you’re dead set on doing so.