July 13, 2008
'The Bug Easy'

IMGP3329.JPGEnough with Sacramento's notorious dry heat of the past week. Time for some wet heat. In New Orleans this weekend the highs are in the 90s, and with the humidity at 77 percent, that should qualify as wet heat. At least in New Orleans there's no more smoke than usual, and a welcome breeze coming across the Mississippi River.

And whenever you step inside, the air conditioning is cranked down to sweater optional. Mid-summer isn't the high season for New Orleans, but the place nonetheless is fairly busy, and no attraction we've visited has been more crowded than the new Audubon Insectarium, where this photo was taken, showing one of the facility's butterfly exhibits. The Insectarium is the first museum to open in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and purportedly it's the largest freestanding museum devoted to insects in the United States. The building that houses it, the 1881 U.S. Customs House, is grand enough all on its own to warrant a visit. As far as the Insectarium is concerned, the galleries include one devoted to swamp critters, including American alligators and spotted gars, even though they aren't insects; another just for termites; another showing butterflies emerging from chrysalises; and an enclosed Asian garden with mature butterflies floating about and a pond stocked with the biggest and brightest koi I've seen.

I learned that the California trapdoor spider of my youth is one of the stronger insects on the planet, capable of bracing its door against intruders at up to 38 times its own weight; that the male horsefley can hit speeds of up to nearly 90 miles per hour; and that a Madagascar hissing cockroach feels just like an oily leather cowboy boot.

This being New Orleans, there's the Tiny Termite Cafe and Bug Appetit, the latter a demonstration kitchen where executive chef Kevin Robertson was whipping up salsa thick with mealworms, fried wax worms that tasted just like fried pork skin, and nachos of mealworms that were meaty and sweet. No "chocolate chirp cookies" were available today, but he had plenty of the most popular item on the menu, "crispy Cajun crickets," sauteed in butter and dusted with Cajun seasonings. Robertson tells the hesistant that they taste just like spicy sunflower seeds, but the consensus in our party was that they taste more like fried chicken skin, and that's a good thing.

If you're planning a trip to New Orleans, set aside for a couple of hours at the Insectarium. Check out its Web site.

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