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“I ate a scorpion once, but it was at the bottom of a vodka bottle, so at the time it seemed like a good idea,” says the guy sitting next to me. He’s idly sucking on a scorpion lollipop as he and my fellow contesants wait apprehensively for the competition to begin. What competition, you ask? A cricket-eating one, of course.

Earlier today, Ehrlich Pest Control partnered with the Occidental Grill & Seafood to open a one-day pop-up “pestaurant” to raise awareness about pest control. Guests were welcomed to graze, for free, on delicacies such as roasted locusts, Mexican spice mealworms, and ant lollipops. Occidental chef Rodney Scruggs even created a special dish for the occasion: a grasshopper burger composed of a ground turkey and grasshopper patty, topped off with piquillo peppers and avocado puree, all on a sweet potato bun.

The main event, however, was the cricket-eating competition. For every participant, Ehrlich pledged to donate $20 to local nonprofit DC Central Kitchen. A good cause and mass cricket consumption? I couldn’t resist, and I put my name down immediately. Unfortunately, those with shellfish allergies couldn’t partake: Both shellfish and insects share a protein in their exoskeletons that causes the allergic reaction.

As we wait, the 18 contestants discuss strategies. “I’m going to go for the popcorn method,” says DCCK worker Andrea Leoni, while the man across from me sits in wide-eyed, silent panic. Finally, each of us are given three cups heaped with crickets. The first person to finish all three cups will be declared the winner. Plot twist: We aren’t allowed any water.

As the clock starts, I try to be reasonable and measure out small amounts of crickets, but then my college instincts kick in and I down an entire cup of crickets in one go. Mistake! The crickets became a dry, mealy mess in my mouth, making it impossible to choke down and start on my second cup. As I chew furiously, the guy next to me who once ate a scorpion throws his hand up in the air. He’s finished all three cups and is awarded the first prize: a bottle of Champagne.

Afterward, I sample a bit of everything. The crickets are light and crunchy, although the tendency for legs to get stuck in between my teeth is slightly irritating. The plain mealworms are bland, but add a little Mexican spice and they become a crisp, peppery snack. Overall impression? If you’re planning on hanging out at a bug buffet, you should bring a lot of water—not just to wash the taste away, but because the pests are salty and dry.

Photo of Julia Tanaka