It began as an idea from a Purdue entomology professor. Now, at college campuses and state fairs around the country, tens of thousands of people go to watch cricket spitting.
Spitting on someone in Nevada constitutes a misdemeanor form of battery carrying a possible $1,000 fine and up to 6 months in jail. Spitting in public is also illegal in New York City, a law that has been on the books since 1896.
But if you spit in the right place, you could be a hero. There is one catch: A cricket needs to go along with that loogie.
At college campuses and state fairs around the country, tens of thousands of people go to watch cricket spitting, wherein a slightly thawed, formerly chirping, one-inch insect is propelled through the air.
Cricket spitting is part of the Bug Bowl, held on Purdue University's West Lafayette, Ind., campus, co-founded by entomology professor Tom Turpin, and attracts up to 30,000 people annually. Penn State University and the University of Tennessee have held their versions of the contest.
Turpin started the Bug Bowl in 1990 as a class activity for non-science majors.
"People just have a fascination with bugs," says Turpin, 68. "So I tried to come up with a way to encompass many departments throughout the university and find a way to educate people about insects."
Other Bug Bowl events, to be held this year on April 14 and 15, include an insects as food exhibit, cockroach racing and an Arthropod Observation Zoo.
Cricket spitting made its debut in 1997 after Turpin looked for a way to incorporate crickets into the Bug Bowl and couldn't find anything else that had a "yuck factor." The idea was inspired by more traditional spitting items: watermelon and pumpkin seeds and, most commonly, tobacco.
After a TV special about cricket spitting the next year, the new sport caught the attention of officials at the Guinness Book of World Records.
Sara Wilcox, a public relations and marketing executive from Guinness, says anything remotely interesting is considered to be a world record, and Dan Capps from Madison, Wis., was the first person to set the cricket-spitting record after being featuring on the TV show.
Capps, 61, who is a production mechanic at Oscar Meyer, has been collecting insects since the 1950s and used his business, Natural Art Promotions, to present his insect collections and lectures to schools around the country. His son, Jeff, now runs Natural Art Promotions, with the hopes of the education of insects and their usefulness in society.
The rules of cricket spitting are as thorough as that in any popular American spectator sport.
The contestants use brown house crickets flown from California, which are frozen and slightly thawed at spitting time. Participants do not sign a waiver to compete. The crickets must weigh between 45 and 55 milligrams and have all appendages -- six legs, four wings and two antennae -- before being spit.
There are also four judges, including a cricket keeper, a spotter and a tape master, watching to make sure the rules are strictly enforced.
First, a competitor enters a circle 5 feet in diameter and then selects a cricket from among three presented. The bug must be in the spitter's mouth with no part of the cricket showing before the spitter is allowed to enter the spitting circle. The spitter has 20 seconds to spit the cricket; an official presenting a white flag signals a proper spit.
Why would anyone want to keep mouthing a cricket for more than 20 seconds?
"Participants sometimes want to have the cricket in their mouths for a few seconds in order to get it lathered down with saliva. A good coating of saliva is a benefit in achieving a maximum distance," Turpin says.
Capps used his skills to spit a cricket a world record 32 1/2 feet in 1998, a year after he stumbled upon the Bug Bowl and Turpin at Purdue. But his technique has nothing to do with saliva.
"One must expectorate the cricket head first in a tight spiral to gain the most distance, but I must admit that I have never been able to get much of a spiral effect," he says. He compensates for the lack of spiral by just being "naturally windy."
Capps says he is not a serious competitor and regards it as a silly and fun thing to do to bring attention to insect-related studies and activities.
Whatever fears people might have about holding an insect in their mouths, Turpin says in many countries insects are a delicacy, and present no health hazard if consumed. No one has gotten seriously injured or sick during of Purdue's cricket spitting events, he says, but he warns that mistakes can happen.
"There will be no major mishaps unless you consider a person swallowing the cricket as they took a deep breath before the expectoration. They are disqualified with the line, 'This is the cricket-spitting contest, not the cricket-eating contest,'" Turpin says.
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