If Timon ever wants a gig as a spokes-rodent, he should give Ron Taylor a buzz.
Timon is an insect-snarfing meerkat who in "The Lion King" sells skeptical pal Simba on the joys of an all-bug diet by pounding down a squirmy specimen. "Mmm," he proclaims, licking his animated chops, "tastes like chicken!"
Taylor shares some of that enthusiasm.
A Yorba Linda entomologist and public health professional, Taylor is a featured presenter at this year's Orange County Fair, which salutes farming and bugs. He's also the self-dubbed Bug Chef, who will cook up Worm Balls With Pasta, Pizza Hopper and other insect-flavored treats daily in the fair's Home Arts building.
The fair runs Friday through July 28. Bug cuisine samples are on the house, and tasters will be rewarded with a ribbon that proclaims "I Ate a Bug at the Orange County Fair."
Taylor is an expert on the subject of insects as food, having written and published "Butterflies in My Stomach" and the "Entertaining With Insects" cookbook. The books, which advance Taylor's premise that mealworms, termites, crickets and other insects can be used as protein-rich foods, especially in underdeveloped countries, caused quite a stir in the United States when they came out in the mid-1970s.
"All hell broke loose," Taylor recalled. "I guess people pay attention to headlines that have to do with eating bugs."
Demands from reporters and talk show hosts, including Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas, poured in.
For a while, Taylor said, he enjoyed the chance to publicize the theories he developed while earning his graduate degree in entomology at the University of Minnesota. But when he started to feel his interviewers were painting him as a bit of a kook, he bowed out of the public eye and has basically kept quiet on the subject for more than 15 years.
That is, he was quiet until O.C. fair marketing official Jill Lloyd stumbled onto a catalog listing for his cookbook.
"I ordered it right away, and when I read his bio and saw that he was from Yorba Linda, I figured it was an omen," Lloyd recalled.
Other buggy highlights of this year's fair include the Bug Barn exhibit of live specimens and entomological collections, hands-on activities for kids, a butterfly garden and other displays that "illustrate the beneficial use of some insects, especially in farming and gardening, and heighten awareness of the detrimental ones," Lloyd said.
Kiddies on the verge of bug burnout can take a break on the 50-cent bumblebee carnival ride in the fair's main mall.
The fair lineup will also include themed contests (including the back-by-popular-demand beehive hairdo contest), headline entertainment (see accompanying schedule below), rodeo events, Fiesta del Mariachi Day and livestock, equestrian and art and crafts competitions.
Details on Taylor's first-ever cooking sessions are still being finalized, but he says he plans to open with a brief discussion, then go right to work on a recipe. Each presentation will feature four dishes, including some of his personal favorites--among them, Critter Fritters, a concoction of wax moth larvae in a corn batter served with a mango chutney and plum preserve sauce, and Critter Crunch, a seasoned mix of pecans and pumpkin seeds with mealworms, crickets or waxworms (the latter, he says, have a taste similar to shrimp).
Taylor long ago gave up serving his unique dishes to guests ("I'm not the kind who likes to play tricks on people") but says he still finds a receptive audience in his co-workers at the county's department of HIV Programs, especially those whose families come from Latin America, Asia, Africa or other nations where insects are not an uncommon part of indigenous diets.
"Insects are eaten throughout the world," he said. "In Mexico, there are over 300 some odd species of insects that are eaten. Native Americans used to eat them too. Even in the South, there are stories of insects used in folk medicine. Louis Armstrong once recalled how his mother used to boil cockroaches and serve the broth to someone who was ill."
Taylor readily acknowledges that fried worms will never edge out French fries in American diets, but he says fair-goers will be surprised by how many among them will be willing to sample his snacks.
"People are fascinated by this subject, and often even the ones who swear they'd never eat an insect will do it after they watch me cook them and smell the pleasant aromas. It's a big county; there are a lot of adventurous people out there."
* What: Orange County Fair.
* When: Friday through July 28. Fair hours are noon-midnight Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Sunday.
* Where: Orange County Fair and Exposition Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa.
* Whereabouts: Exit the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway at Del Mar/Fair Drive; go west to the fair entrance.
* Wherewithal: $2-$6; children 5 and under get in free. Free or discounted admission for children, teens and seniors on some days. Parking is $2-$4.
* Where to call: (714) 708-3247.