“Go on you wuss, eat it!” said the fireman’s sister as she forcefully offered him a mealworm.
The muscular and tanned fireman was on leave from yet another tour of duty in Afghanistan and stood towering above his sibling with his face screwed up in disgust.
“But you’ve just eaten a pigeon burger,” I added, wondering what made him happy to eat a bird and yet unwilling to eat an apparently nutritious little dried worm.
“That’s completely different!” Exclaimed the six-foot plus hunk as he resolutely resisted his sister’s persistence.
“Look,” she said, popping another handful of worms into her delicate mouth. “They’re really tasty.”
Both myself and the fireman grimaced. I have to confess, I was unwilling to try any of the fare on offer at Rentokil’s pop-up ‘Pestaurant’. And, as a vegetarian, that included the pigeon burgers!
Rentokil were in town to mark their anniversary. They been controlling pests for 85 years and wanted to do something different as part of the celebrations. They set up a stall at London’s One New Change shopping mall, right next to the world famous St Paul’s Cathedral, to serve edible insects and pigeon burgers. The queues began to form the moment the stock of scorpion lollies, chocolate-coated ants and various other insect ‘treats’ been laid out. Once the pigeon burgers joined the insects, worms and caterpillars already on the menu the stand was basically under siege.
Tourists, office types, construction workers from a nearby building site and even staff from Gordon Ramsey’s fashionable restaurant within the mall joined the throng. A cleaner who happened upon us when we were setting up had predicted the rush. “You giving this away for free?” He asked me, looking at the insects being arrayed on the stand. “We sure are!” I replied. “Then you’d better have a lot of it because this area is full of bankers and they’re drawn to free stuff like crows to carrion.” Then the prophet pushed his rubbish cart off to sweep up some discarded cigarettes ends from the otherwise immaculately groomed pavements.
Rentokil had asked me to live-tweet the event and as I stood there observing proceedings it became clear to me that mobile and social media were playing a huge part in pumping up that ever-present queue for food. The cleaner was right of course. I overheard one guy on his phone to a friend; “Come on! It’s only a short walk from your office and it’s all FREE!”. Another was overheard telling a colleague that their plans for lunch had just been change and to meet them down at the Pestaurant. There was a lot of pecking going on too. Not from the pigeons, they were all well-dead, but from the public as they alerted their networks of the event via their mobile devices.
Clearly the Pestaurant was a major attraction that day and both the public and the press were drawn to it like, um, flies to dead pigeons. But I’m sure that without the incredible power that mobile and social media give to word of mouth communications the demand would not have been quite so overwhelming. Such was the public’s taste for insects and pigeon burgers that Rentokil ran out of crunchy critters at a very early stage and had to send people out scouring London for replacement bugs. They did a great job and the Pestaurant managed to stay in business until mid afternoon when, finally, every last insect leg and pigeon breast had been devoured.
The food was free and I’ll accept that this meant many more people were prepared to give it a try. But I’m convinced that what I witnessed at the Pestaurant was part a constant cultural change in attitudes to food, largely brought on by an increasing globalisation. When I was growing up in the 60s in England people who eat curry or chinese were in the marked minority. Such fare was seen as ‘foreign muck’ by a population used to a traditional and rather insular English diet. All that has changed and the sight of people from five to ninety-five munching on insects shows they’re still changing.
I also watched first hand the incredible power of digital and social media, especially when combined with the always available communications channel that is mobile. Without a doubt the digital channels were combined excellently with the brilliance of the Pestaurant idea to make the day a massive success for everyone involved.