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Insects, cotton candy and ice cream: Exploring the science of food



As tarantulas go, Rosita was well-socialized. Cradled and coddled by the hands of hundreds of people attending the Science of Eats at the Museum of Life and Science, Rosita neither bit nor fussed, but did what tarantulas do most of their lives: sit.

"It tickles," a man said, giggling. "That's really tickly."

"How do you eat a tarantula?" another bystander asked.

"Oiled and fried," Rosita's handler responded. "With the hairs usually removed. They supposedly taste like crab."

But Rosita was not bound for the dinner table. It's hard to eat what you've named.

She lives in the support room at the museum's butterfly house, where she eats her weekly meal of crickets.

Most of the time tarantulas just sit and wait. "They don't move," the handler explained. "And occasionally go, 'Oh there's a girlfriend or boyfriend.'"

Last week's Science of Eats united gourmands and geeks with exhibits exploring the chemistry, biology and physics of food: among them, the secrets of cotton candy, the fermentation of goat cheese, the compounds of roasted coffee beans and the mysteries of maltodextrin, a suspicious-looking powder posing as a fat replacer.

First stop, enzymes. At Novozymes, a company in Franklinton, scientists farm microorganisms, which are confined in petri dishes their entire lives, then extract their enzymes for various uses.

In this case, the enzyme (lactase for those of you scoring at home) breaks the bond between the glucose (a type of sugar) and the lactose, thus making the milk lactose-free. It also tastes sweeter.

The tell is in the test strips, which, when the milk has shed its lactose, turn from blue to green. Either that or the milk is pregnant.

Next stop, ice cream dips.

With all the dry ice, the table looked like a Stryper concert, as waves of vapor rolled off small tubs of liquid nitrogen. The temperature in those tubs was 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

"What would that be in Kelvin?" I quizzed a Duke student, trying to sound like I once took chemistry. (I didn't.)

"Seventy-seven," instantly replied the science whiz, who probably scored perfect on her SAT.

"What would happen if I put my finger in there?" I asked.

"Your finger would freeze," she replied, likely thinking, Wow, I haven't heard that one before.

A few minutes in the liquid nitrogen and the ice cream mix turned into ice cream pellets, almost ready to eat.

"Be patient," a student advised, apportioning my dips into a cup.

I waited what seemed like an eternity, and then popped a couple. I hadn't waited long enough. Like the flagpole scene from A Christmas Story, the dips tore fragments of my tongue.

Next stop, the pizza toss.

At PiePushers, Mike the pusher was demonstrating how to toss dough using a plastic facsimile: Left, right, left, toss. He made it look effortless, as if he were toying with a Frisbee .

I tried: Left, right, left, toss, fold, drop. Right, left, right, fold, drop.

Exasperated, I made a beeline for the bugs.

A female Giant Spiny Stick the length of a fork and the color of a hazelnut rested on the hand of a woman with a perfect French manicure. Eaten in New Guinea, these insects reportedly taste like leafy greens.

"You could make a taco out of them," a bystander commented.

Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, which apparently taste like cooked chicken, squirmed in a clear, tall (thankfully) plastic container. A slice of orange slumped inside. With oranges, cat food is a cockroach's favorite food, which explains why I occasionally have crush one, pulverizing its exoskeleton, on my kitchen floor.

Nearby, a pan of mealworms feasting on their last supper of organic corn and zucchini were ready to be coated in warm melted chocolate.

As for the crickets, "they're spoken for," a museum worker said, and thus off-limits for human consumption.

Rosita the tarantula had endured a long day. She looked hungry.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Eats and geeks."

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