“You can’t order the tarantula today,” the man behind the counter at Bull City Burger and Brewery said to the front of the lunch rush line.
Yes, Thursday’s tarantula burger was already spoken for, claimed through a lottery by Mark Christmann, a cook from Greensboro who made his first trip to downtown Durham for the dubious privilege of eating the burger topped with crawly creature.
Bull City Burger, known for its pasture-raised beef burgers, is in the midst of its seventh annual Exotic Meats Month, an April tradition where pythons, alligators and scorpions join the menu.
There’s also a tarantula challenge, where adventurous diners chow down on a burger of gruyere cheese, spicy chili paste and, well, a tarantula. The prize, beyond social media glory, is a pretty sweet T-shirt. Bull City started the month with 15 tarantulas. Now, there are just two.
“It’s an oven-baked, salted, zebra tarantula,” said Bull City Burger owner Seth Gross, who ate his own tarantula burger three years ago.
“It’s very crispy, just like the end of a fried shrimp tail,” Gross said. “Not to get too technical, but it is an exoskeleton.”
While it’s the third year of the challenge, everything is different. Typically, it takes all month to dole out the tarantulas through a lottery system, but this year Bull City has done it in about half the time, thanks to a bit of a media circus.
It’s shown up in outlets across the country, and Gross has talked to reporters around the world, from New York to London.
Christmann said he found out about the tarantula challenge scrolling through social media.
Citing his roots in West Texas near the New Mexico border, he said his dream burger order is probably one topped with green chili with triple patties and as many napkins as can be spared.
He’s the willing-to-eat-anything kind of guy — OK with crickets and grasshoppers and only given pause today by his affinity for spiders.
“I really like these creatures, I don’t feel super great about eating them,” he said. “But maybe just one.”
(Fun fact: He hates papaya. The fruit makes him nauseous.)
To prepare for his tarantula burger, Christmann arrived on a nearly empty stomach, planning his breakfast around the spider. He tried to avoid anything that might disagree.
“Do I have cereal, do I have eggs?” Christmann thought. “I don’t know what’s going to sit well with a tarantula.”
Christmann sat by himself at a table by the window, though, by now, the entire dining room knew what was up.
The sandwich arrived with the bun off, the tarantula atop the burger. The meal is $30, with a side of the restaurant’s fries.
Christmann began as diners stared at the man willing to eat a spider burger.
“It’s crunchy,” he said of the tarantula. “It’s very much got the texture of, like, dry jerky with a nice chili finish. It’s not chewy at all. This is like the crunchiest jerky you’ve ever had. … It’s not like other meats.
“It has a strong umami flavor, real savory,” he continued. “There’s a unique taste to the tarantula. It plays well off the chili paste and gruyere.”
He likes it.
After the first bite, he said he didn’t picture the spider anymore. It was just another burger, albeit the strangest one he’s ever had.
Christmann said it was no great feat of character to take part in the Tarantula Challenge. He was mostly just curious about what a tarantula would taste like. But he’s glad he made it to the end.
“It’s in the same vein as running a marathon or a race,” he said. “It’s really the journey through it. How well am I going to run this, how well is this going to taste, is it going to sit right?”
With all that extra attention about the tarantula burger, Gross said he’s seen much more criticism than in the past from animal rights activists. Despite the spectacle, he said his aim is education.
“We’re not here killing spiders,” Gross said. “We buy them online, they’re organically raised on crickets for human consumption … .
“It’s really teaching people that bugs are a serious protein source for a lot of people on this planet,” he said. “There are people who say that if we ate more bugs, we could possibly end world hunger. So I wanted to bring awareness to the different types of diets people have around the world.”
Christmann, a culinary professional, had a few ideas of what else to do with a tarantula.
“That crunch and that flavor could actually go well in a German vinegar-based potato salad,” he said. “I don’t know so much about getting a bowl like popcorn. That might be a little much, but I don’t know. Maybe in a bag like Reese’s peanut butter cups — two to a container, one spider now, save one for later.”
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