The mealworm tamales at Penn State’s Great Insect Fair this past Saturday were, indeed, a meal. The capsaicin hit about thirty seconds after the last bite, as a hot tamale should, and I found myself going back for seconds, and then thirds. There’s always something special about food that needs to be unwrapped, and if it contains the larvae of that most poetically named of all beetles — the tenebrionid or darkling beetle — well, that’s gravy. Of course, it helped that I’m not in the habit of examining my food too closely before popping it in my mouth.
Consuming mealworm larvae can amount to a kind of poetic justice, too, if they’ve managed to infest one’s grain supply. I’ll admit I’ve cooked up rice with flour moth larvae in it (though I’ve never served it to guests — don’t panic, y’all). It’s a way of making lemonade from lemons, and the results are usually much more nutritious than the unadulterated grain would’ve been. I’ve been told that the kinds of locusts that devastate crops are actually a culinary blessing in disguise.
They didn’t have any locusts on Saturday, but they did have two additional Mexican insect dishes at the food booth, and surprisingly, it was one of the few spots at the entire fair where I didn’t have to stand in line. My cousin Morgan graciously stepped to the side when I wanted to have a closer look at the wax moth bean dip.
This time, the insect ingredient was a little harder to ignore. But isn’t that the most succulent larva you’ve ever seen? Beekeepers, take note: when the wax moths start eating your hives, you can can simply turn the tables on them.
Then there was the guacamole. All three dishes were free, and very tasty.
It’s funny the prejudice we have against consuming terrestrial invertebrates, especially considering how much we prize certain aquatic invertebrates — shrimp, oysters, lobsters, clams, squid. But I guess that’s the point of the Great Insect Fair: to get people — especially kids — thinking about insects in a more objective light. It’s become a hugely popular annual event, packing the Ag Arena right across from Beaver Stadium, home of the Nittany Lions.
It felt a little odd to attend a free event at the Penn State University Park campus. The fair did have its share of vendors, though. My mother couldn’t attend due to a back attack, so as a consolation gift I bought her a t-shirt with a picture of a caterpillar taking a crap and the message, “FRASS HAPPENS.”
Morgan wanted to buy a pair of live Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the worst way, but her mean old parents nixed the idea. She found plenty of kid-friendly activities to console herself with, though: making a paper butterfly out of a coffee filter, for example, and fishing for crawdads with a flyswatter (see the video in yesterday’s post).
In general, any display with live invertebrates drew a crowd. The mosquito guys were great, wielding a scary handpuppet of the World’s Deadliest Insect, and pointing out the differences between male and female mosquitos in the jars in front of them, which tempted visitors to crouch down and wait for one of the swarming larvae to complete its course and graduate to the upper chamber. A stuffed crow served as a reminder of the real victims of West Nile Virus, which tends to be downplayed in the local media because, after all, it rarely kills people.
The turnout itself was the thing that impressed me the most. Who’d have thought going to the cockroach races would be a bigger draw than sitting at home and watching the Penn State-Illinois game? Next weekend, the fields across the road will once again be packed with tailgate parties, and the empty Ag Arena will echo with the roars of 100,000 football fans, but for one day, at least, insects reigned supreme.
In response to a prompt at Creek Running North.