Sunday, July 05, 2009

Audubon Insectarium

A few weeks ago, Kirby, my brother-in-law Danny, my parents and I made our annual trip to New Orleans. Every year we see more signs of post-Katrina recovery in terms of the numbers of tourists and conventioneers out and about, as well as the number of new and reopened businesses, and this last trip was no different. People are returning to the Big Easy: for the second year in a row, New Orleans tops the Census Bureau's annual report of fastest-growing cities. Another sign of recovery is the return of the red Canal Street streetcars, which were flooded by the hurricane:
Canal Street, speaking of which, is home to one of the city's newest attractions, the Audubon Insectarium. We missed its opening by about a week last year and were looking forward to visiting it this year.
The Insectarium is a lot larger than it might appear from the outside of the 1881 Customs House; its designers did a great job maximizing the available space while at the same time preserving the architectural character of the historic structure. After you enter, you walk down a long hallway filled with different bug exhibits: Once you reach the end of the hallway, you double back to the front through a series of rooms, galleries and theaters, each of which is dedicated to a specific insect theme (although the exhibits are not limited to insects; there are exhibits dedicated to spiders, scorpions, centipedes and other arthropods as well). The "Hall of Fame Gallery," for example, has an impressive collection of preserved insects on display:The last room before the exit is a Japanese-themed butterfly garden, where several exotic and colorful species of butterflies flutter about. It's not as big as the Cockrell Butterfly Center here in Houston, but it is a nevertheless pleasant experience:One of the more unique aspects of the Insectarium is the "Bug App├ętit" kitchen, where you can sample foods made with insects. On the day we visited, dishes included cinnamon- and barbecue-flavored crickets, a waxworm chutney and a mealworm salsa, shown here:
In western culture, entomophagy is generally taboo; we consider eating insects to be disgusting (even though we have no problems eating their crustacean relatives, such as crabs and shrimp). However, many other cultures around the world rely on insects as a significant source of protein. The purpose of the bug kitchen is to challange Insectarium visitors to rethink their biases regarding insects as food, so I accepted the challenge and chomped into this mealworm:
It had a mild, nutty taste. Not bad at all, to be honest. When you eat them in the salsa, you really couldn't taste them at all. Same thing with the cinnamon- and barbecue-flavored crickets; you really couldn't taste the cricket itself.

Insects constitute about 80% percent of all living organisms. At any given time, there are approximately 1.5 million insects crawling around on this earth for each human. They pollinate our crops, till our soils, recycle decayed biological materials, provide us with food, and produce for us materials such as honey and silk. They are vital to our survival, but we rarely give them much thought. The Audubon Insectarium seeks to help us explore this important yet misunderstood class of animals, and I think it does a good job.

Next time you're in New Orleans, be sure to check it out.

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