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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reptile store offers cooked insects to visitors

Carlinville family members (from left) Kelly Taylor-Wilson, Chance Wilson, 10, and Allie Wilson, 14, bite into their crickets at the same time at the 3rd Annual Customer Appreciation Day at The Tye-Dyed Iguana in Fairview Heights on Saturday.

Fairview Heights —With the sweet smell of barbecued cockroaches wafting through the air, "Chef" Dave Gracer, chopsticks in hand, poked around at a scorpion deep-frying in a pot of canola oil.

The crowd lined up in front of him, jockeying for their free spoonfuls of sauteed crickets and rice.

"It's a long story," Gracer says, recounting how he became one of the country's pre-eminent bug gourmets, "but basically I was a finicky eater as a kid. Then one year a friend gave me some mealworms as a birthday present, and that's how it started."

Now, nearly a decade later, the bespectacled writing teacher from Rhode Island has fashioned a second career out of entomophagy — the practice of eating bugs — lecturing around the country on the merits of insect consumption. Gracer wants to persuade people that eating bugs is actually quite normal, not just something for eccentrics with a taste for the unusual. Gracer points out that insects are a sustainable food source that has been consumed by certain cultures for centuries. Because insects are low on the food chain, they don't consume the resources that other protein sources — say chicken or pork — do.

On Saturday, he was the star attraction at the Tye-Dyed Iguana, an exotic reptile store holding its third "customer appreciation" event for its mostly tattooed, pierced and snake-and-lizard-loving clientele.

"I was looking for edible bug recipes on the Internet, and I just stumbled across him," said Matt Smallheer, the dreadlocked owner of the store. "He's a bug chef — that's what he does."

Smallheer knew it would be a perfect fit for his customers, so he invited Gracer to Fairview Heights, where the insect expert, along with some other attractions, drew nearly a thousand people — and their brave appetites.

"I ate cockroaches," said Lauren Case, a multiply pierced 22-year-old from Belleville. "They were very barbecue-saucy. They were pretty crunchy, and kind of gooey in the middle, sort of like when you have fat on a rib."

Case was lined up for more. Nearby, Craig Earland stood in the crowd, munching on some crickets.

"I lived in Korea for six years with the Air Force," Earland said. "I had scorpion, cockroach, dog, cat. This is nothing. I'm waiting on a scorpion. I had 'em boiled last time."

The bugs were not the only draw Saturday. Lizard Man — who has undergone 700 hours of tattoo work and is covered in reptilianesque scales — stood for photos with kids, sticking his forked tongue out for each shot.

Meanwhile, the real reptiles inside the store seemed to be getting some attention, too.

Nick Cleveland stood by the store's doorway, which was flanked by clean-cut young men from the Mormon Church, wearing their crisp white shirts.

"This is Aphrodite," Cleveland said, introducing the 8-foot-long Albino Burmese Python encircling his neck.

Not far away, kids were lined up to get pierced at the $20 piercing booth.

"This is much bigger than last year," said Bill Fox, the store's rodent caretaker, musing on the large crowd. "A lot of people who are into reptiles are into piercing. But there are also, I guess, what you'd call normal people here, too."

Despite Gracer's efforts to persuade, insects remain a hard sell.

Sheryl Hagen and her daughter Sydney picked at a plate of crickets, bracing themselves for the moment.

Sydney, 8, stuck one of them in her mouth and chewed for a moment. Then she leaned over, spit the bug out, and ran inside to the bathroom.

"She ate a cricket," her mom said, shrugging. "I ate one, too. It was crunchy. Not bad. But not for me."

For an audio slide show, click here:

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