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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In the Middle of a Million Mask March

Recently, members of the hacktivist group Anonymous staged a protest in Washington DC as part of the Guy Fawkes Day Million Mask March.

Here is my 1st-person account of being embedded in that protest, augmented with reports from social media.

Click here to view the complete story.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Heading Back to a County Fair of Yore

I saw online today that the annual Cumberland County Fair is underway once again. Now I won't be going to the fair this year. It is too long a commute from Washington, D.C. to South Jersey.

But the fair had quite an effect on me during my formative years. It offered an exhilarating, exotic, stay-where-you-are travel adventure, a week-long glimpse into a world that was as foreign to me at the time as were the places I read about in Classics Illustrated or in my science fiction collection.

When I was young, the fair was held on a large piece of land in my Bridgeton hometown. Off the dusty midway, you could ride elevated, spinning, dipping rides that delivered thrills I thought were reserved for astronauts in the Mercury space program. For even more chills, there was the House of Horror. I often imagined myself getting trapped in the House of Glass maze until some tattooed carney found me after closing.

Then there was my favorite place on the fairgrounds - the Side Show, where giant wind-waving banners and fast-talking ticket-taking barkers promised mysterious strangeness never seen by modern man, let alone an awkward pre-teen boy growing up in rural Upper Deerfield Township.

Who wouldn't want to see a bearded lady or a wild man from Borneo or a child with the skin of a reptile and the face of a lizard?

I was fascinated by the freaks and the geeks. They didn't fit in. They were outsiders. I found myself rooting for them. I sometimes envisioned that after the fair closed for the night, they all gathered together to laugh at the "normals" who handed over their dimes and quarters to be shocked and feel superior.

In my teen years, my fair focus changed to 2 ideas that were to dominate that time of my life - music and sex, or more accurately, playing music and contemplating exactly what is this sex thing I am supposed to be figuring out?

The fair always held a Battle of Bands. One of the first live rock shows I ever played was in 1966 with my first band The Livin' End. My college-era band Frog Ocean Road debuted at the fair. I don't remember too much about that performance, but that probably has more to do with the substances we were smoking and ingesting that day rather than the passage of more than 40 years.

Nowhere did those concerns of music and sex join more directly than at the fair's one adult attraction - the strip show. The big tent for that forbidden show was located at the far end of the fairgrounds. The show was called The Coppertone Review. It featured scantily-clad girls who would gyrate and disrobe to the pounding horn-driven rhythms of the Coppertone Review Band. A few times a day, the girls would come outside the tent, displaying just a hint of the promise of what was inside. They would pose and dance for a few minutes to the band. Then the entire group would disappear back inside. You could often find me there, grooving to the band and lusting for the possibilities the girls' represented.

In my 16th summer, I borrowed an ID from an 18-year-old friend and finally headed inside the Coppertone tent. I don't remember everything about that night, but I remember enough. The mayor of Bridgeton, along with other town elders I recognized, were already inside. The featured performer was Chili Pepper ("She's Too Hot to Handle"). Ms. Pepper spent much of her stage time wiggling and writhing on a black-and-white zebra skin rug. I kept hoping for her pasties to fall off or her black g-string to slip. But they never did.  One-half hour later, I was back outside. I had seen my first strip show. And Chili Pepper and the other girls had that night taught a valuable life lesson - the promise and mystery of what is beyond the curtain (or, in this case. the tent flap) is often much greater than the reality delivered.

Toward the end of my teen years, the fair moved from Bridgeton to its current location in neighboring Deerfield Township. At that site, I had my most memorable fair encounter. My best friend at the time, Tom Glass, and I decided to sneak into the fair. We had plenty of money to buy tickets, but getting in for free sounded much more exciting. Besides, we were intent on being bad boys.

Tom said he had been told about a place in the outside fence where we could sneak under. We hitchhiked to the site and walked through the woods to the fence, where we found the place to wriggle in. Tom went first. Just as I was crawling through, we heard the sound of a horse. A fair officer was approaching on horseback. Tom dropped the metal chain-link fence on me and took off. The officer dismounted and got me untangled. I was covered with dirt and my shirt was ripped. He ordered me to follow him to the fair office.

As I walked across the fairgrounds, I tried to see myself as Steve McQueen in the classic World War II movie The Great Escape, returning to camp after being recaptured by the GermansBut it wasn't working. Steve McQueen had been trying to break out and I had been trying to break in. I might think I was cool, but McQueen actually was. And, unlike McQueen, I had a mother and father who would be furious with my actions when they found out.

Inside the office, I was questioned by fair officials. There was a single lamp on the table.  But they never shined it directly in my eyes. And they never hit me with the thick phone book that was lying on the table. Finally, they told me they were going to let me go with a warning if I would promise to tell others not to try to sneak in. Of course, I agreed. Maybe Steve McQueen wouldn't have taken that easy way out, but I learned by now that I was no Steve McQueen.

I went back to the fair a few times after my teenage years, but it was never the same.

In life, things change. And the more time that passes, the bigger those change often become.

Today, the rides at the fair pale in comparison to those at Disney or Great Adventure. It is politically incorrect to stare at freaks and geeks in side shows. Anyway, you can do that for free whenever you want on the internet. People hesitate to hold events like Battle of the Bands for young people any more. There is too much of a chance somebody will bring a gun. When you have Pornhub and other graphic XXX-rated sites, who needs Chili Pepper and the Coppertone Review?

And if you want to be a bad boy (or girl), just call up your video game copy of Grand Theft Auto 99, steal the fastest car you can, drive to a simulated county fair, and blow away half the crowd there. You won't even get dirty or have your shirt rip. I'm just not sure what kind of memories you'll be making.

Friday, June 6, 2014

If the Idea of Chewing on Insects Doesn't Bug You, Here's a DC Lunch With a Lot of Buzz

The 2 young women, dressed in fashionable summer DC office attire, looked down at the red napkin being held in front of them. The napkin contained today's featured appetizers - Mexican spice mealworms, roasted mealworms, roasted crickets, and roasted locusts.

"How do they taste?" one of the women asked, making a face. "Are they yucky?"

"No, they are really crispy. And salty," the man replied before slipping a small handful of insects into his mouth.

Such conversations were the order of the day yesterday on the outdoor dining patio of the Occidental Seafood and Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue, which was serving as the site of a 3-hour, pop-up Pestaurant offering a menu consisting entirely of cooked insects.

The event, which was titled "Pestaurant on Pennsey," was sponsored by Ehrlich, a DC-area pest control company. The 1st  Pestaurant event was held last year in London. This year the DC lunch at the Occidental was one of 12 locations around the globe that were offering insect dining.

Company officials said that one reason for the worldwide event was to try to make bugs and insects a little more appetizing to the general public. A 2013 report from the Unite Nations called consumer disgust "one of the largest barriers to the adoption of insects as viable sources of protein in many Western countries". It also named "insect farming" as a potential way to "address food and feed insecurity" across the world.

But the free fun afternoon lunch also had a more immediate social impact. Erlich donated $5 to DC Central Kitchen, an organization which feeds the homeless and the poor, for every person who sampled bugs from the 3 insect-laden tables.

On the savory table, the wait staff was serving roasted crickets, Mexican spice mealworms, roasted mealworms, buffalo worms, and roasted locusts. On the sweet table, the offerings included scorpion lollipops, chocolate ant rounds,  mealworm lollipops, ant candy, and ant and cricket lollipops.

Chef Rodney Scruggs
But, by far, the biggest culinary hit of the afternoon was the tasty grasshopper burgers created by Occidental executive chef Rodney Scruggs. He said his burgers were a combination of turkey, grasshopper, and a secret ingredient. "You always have to have a secret ingredient," he joked. He explained that the grasshoppers used in the burgers reminded him of dry mushrooms. "I could see them pairing well with a really old wine," Scruggs said. The chef explained that after much consultation dried grasshoppers were added to give the burger "a little extra crunch." He said that since grasshoppers are a staple south of the border, he topped his creation off with a special salsa.

As television, print, and online cameramen recorded the scene, Scruggs said the environmental and charitable focus of the event appealed to the restaurant. "It's for good causes, but it's playful, fun, and whimsical, too," he said. "It's really a win-win for everyone".

Extra, Extra, Read All About 
A Series of The Prices Do DC Bonus Posts

Chirping About a Cricket Contest 

I had intended just to come, eat a few bugs, and blog about it. But then I saw the sign.

"Next ... Cricket Eating Competition 1:15 p.m." it said. "Your participation is a $20 donation to DC Central Kitchen. Win Prizes."

It really didn't take a lot of consideration. I had already downed a grasshopper burger and 2 big helpings of savory bugs, so I had no aversion to adding crickets to the list. I think DC Central Kitchen is one of the city's best charities, so that was attractive. And while I would be a newbie to the world of competitive cricket eating, I did have some experience in related fields. As a young reporter doing a 1st-person story, I had been the July 4th South Jersey watermelon seed spitting champion back in the 1980s for all of 2 hours until my record was broken.  And, since retiring to DC, I had blogged about the 2012 July 4th Z-Burger battle bash.

As I finished the last bites of my grasshopper burger, I told my wife to sign me up.

I took my seat at the table with about 20 other competitors. On my right was a legislative aide from Capitol Hill. On my left was a young Environmental Protection Agency worker.  Both gave me some cause for concern. I mean who knows more about bugging than the government. And the EPA deals all the time with environmental pests. But I actually thought my toughest competition might come from the recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who said he loved to compete in eating contests.

The head judge, who came all the way from England (or at least had a British accent) gave the directions. They seemed simple enough. We would each be handed 3 small cups of dried crickets. The winner would be the person who downed all 3 cups the quickest. If any crickets spilled on the table, you would have to consume those, too. You would have to raise your hand and then open your mouth to prove that all the insects had been completely swallowed. You couldn't drink anything while eating.

The judge asked if we were ready. We all nodded. "Alright begin," he said.

I learned quite a bit about cricket consuming in the next 3 minutes. First, there are almost as many ways of eating crickets in a cricket-eating competition as there are crickets. There is the dainty, grab one-by-one style. There is the 2-handed, 2-cup plunge. There is the dump-the-whole-cup down-at-once and then try to swallow method.

Then there are the faces of the contestants. They are interesting to say the least. They are also distracting. In fact, I became more interested in watching the faces than I did in eating. Or at least that is what I told myself. Actually, I realized after my 1st cup of crickets that I wasn't cut out for hard-core cricket chomping and chewing. I did manage to down a 2nd cup. But by that time, the winner had long finished and I was battling for a 3rd place finish that I really didn't have the stomach for.

But even though I emerged beaten, I was not downhearted for long. A few steps away was the perfect cure for taking the sting out of a lost bug battle - I grabbed another of Chef Scruggs' really tasty grasshopper burgers. However not before having 2 glasses of water and a Coke. If nothing else, I now knew that cricket eating is the saltiest work this side of competitive salt-shaker downing.

Move Over President Obama, My Bug Eating Feats Just Steps from Your White House Make Fox News

Don't Think a Pestaurant Is a Serious Subject? Tell That to NPR

Be Prepared to Squirm: Here's a Photo Essay of a Buggy Day from DC Eater