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It was a weekend for being indoors, for reading about being outdoors, and as often happens when stuck in the wheel ruts of winter I reached for my books on foraging.
Where this impulse comes from I don’t know, exactly, but it must be a cousin to urges that send the gardener to his seed catalogs and the angler to her fly-tying bench.
When trees are cracking from the cold, I want to prepare for days when the world will go green again and the gathering of wild watercress, horseradish and maybe a few ramps can resume. And eventually I wandered online, searching for sharper images than the drawings in Euell Gibbons’ old tomes, where I encountered the coolest new word, idea and website all wrapped into one:
Now invasivore sounds at first like a bad thing, doesn’t it? A descriptive that should come with a dilemma attached, at least.
Perhaps an antonym to locavore, and a fresh way to flog the foodies whose unbridled lust for the next new exotic makes them intruders into countries, cultures or ecosystems where they don’t belong.
Wrong. The invasivore turns out to be a sort of eco-foodie devoted to the consumption of noxious invasive species, from Asian carp to garlic mustard to feral pigs and giant rodents, on the theory that if we can’t beat 'em we might as well eat 'em.
Considering the way some other control strategies are going, this is an intriguing notion indeed.
Where the term was born
The term’s coinage is generally attributed to James Gorman, a New York Times science writer-at-large who described, in a special New Year’s section for 2011, a frisson in food politics, “not quite a movement yet,” that was showing up in such forms as a lionfish derby in the Florida Keys and a proposal to rechristen Asian carp as “Kentucky tuna.”
(If that strikes you as fantastic, consider where sales of “slimehead” might be today if the fish hadn’t been rebranded as “orange roughy.” Also, that tilapia remains a noxious invasive species in lakes of the American southeast.)
Gorman pointed to a Chicago restaurant whose offerings included a “crisp paupiette of Asian carp in Barolo sauce,” and to a San Francisco blogger whose philosophy held that “if you really want to get down on conservation you should eat weeds.”
Much has changed in two years. Now there is at least one cookbook devoted to the subject: “Eating Aliens,” written by Jackson “Locavore Hunter” Landers and published by Storey Press last November.
Last May, Popular Mechanics featured “5 Invasive Species You Should Be Eating” and spotlighted three aquatic species – lionfish, snakehead, giant cannibal shrimp – as well as two well-known terrestrial invaders, nutria and feral pigs.
The magazine offered a recipe for each, including one for snakehead ceviche with citrus and cilantro that is said to be quite the thing in Maryland.
The Baltimore Sun called this dish “an invasive-species eradication plan in a martini glass,” and quoted one chef’s endorsement of snakehead as having “that same dense, meaty and yet flaky texture of eel with a real sweet aftertaste to it. It’s a good fish. It should be. It spends all day eating bass and other tasty fish.”
Recipes for alien defense
There are recipes galore at Invasivore.org, which aims “to be your one-stop guide for devouring invasive species, those organisms which have been moved around the world, damaging their new surroundings. Think of it as reasonable revenge for the harm these species cause.”
The site is a project of graduate students at the University of Notre Dame, who obtained both university support and some National Science Foundation funding for an experiment to see if raising awareness about invaders and their uses might lead to a different relationship between our species and the aliens.
I counted more than 30 invaders on the site, although some of the fauna – like wild turkey, salmon and crayfish – certainly aren’t considers invaders everywhere they show up.
There was an interesting focus on flora, too, including seven recipes for garlic mustard, which is on the most-wanted list for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other land-management agencies.
The students blog about their own experiences afield and in the kitchen, and have assembled a diverse list of links to other sites dealing with some aspect of the invasivore life.
How much difference can this make?
Are recipes for garlic mustard and Asian carp really going to turn back these invasions overnight? Or ever?
Nobody believes that can happen, of course, including probably the most devoted of invasivores. Nobody proposes that other, more traditional efforts at containing or eradicating the invaders should be dropped in favor of just eating them.
But it would be a mistake, I think, to treat this little movement as some quirky novelty with no real potential to make a change.
To be sure, some of our biggest problem species in Minnesota, like zebra mussels, appear to have no chance of finding a place in the human food web. Too little meat, too many toxins.
But Asian carp may have some potential, if not quite on the level that seems to be happening with snakehead in Maryland. These fish are huge, yes, but they’re also quite bony and the yield of useable flesh per catch is comparatively small.
And yet they’re tasty, according to Duane Chapman, a federal fish biologist who explained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that because Asian carp are filter feeders, not bottom-feeders like common carp, they have both a mild flavor and lower levels of contaminants.
Chapman has produced a video showing how to fillet, bone and prepare these invasive lunkers, and, yes, it has some of that much-loved footage of airborne giant carp stirred up by motorboats.
As chefs and adventurous amateurs continue their kitchen experiments, officials are getting into the act as well. Both the federal and Illinois governments made development of Asian-carp exports to China, from commercial fisheries in the U.S., part of their long-term control strategies.
So who knows where all this might lead?
As another Baltimore chef told the Sun, intending optimism, “We’ve proved time and again, the best way to destroy something is get humans involved.”