From the skies, land, rivers, seas and swamps they come, taking over the nation, freeloading, crowding out natives and generally making a mess of the things. But what if we could turn them into food and is that a good idea? No, I’m not talking about zombies,
refugees, illegal immigrants or Trump supporters. I’m talking about kudzu, watercress, Asian carp, starlings, crayfish, wild pigs and a slew of snails (You just KNEW the mollusks would be kicking ass and taking names didn’t you?). These are all invasive species and potential meals! But you know what they say about invasive species: “If you can’t beat them, sauté them with olive oil, capers, garlic and minced shallot for three minutes on a side over medium-high heat, salt and pepper to taste, serve with a side of couscous and make it dance with a garnish of gremolata.” Let’s see what’s cookin’ with a few of the yummiest offenders.
A filter feeder, silver carp were imported into the U.S. in the 1970s to help clean Arkansas ponds used for cultivating catfish. Flooding washed them into the Mississippi River and the scaly interlopers have moved upriver and infested the Wabash, Illinois and Ohio Rivers and other tributaries. Shipping canals connect the Illinois River to the Great Lakes in Chicago where the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has built electric barriers in a last-ditch, all-out effort to keep them out of the Great Lakes. Silver carp are can grow to enormous sizes and are extremely prolific with spawning females producing up to 5 million eggs a year. While carp is a popular food fish for hundreds of millions of the world’s people, it has never really tempted the North American palate.
Asian carp are probably more well known as YouTube sensations, due to their barbarous, hellish and indiscriminate aggression toward fishermen, water skiers and boaters.
Oh! The Humanity!
Kudzu and Watercress
At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the Japanese delegation built a garden featuring kudzu as an ornamental bush. By the turn of the century it was promoted as a forage crop and was later planted by the CCC to help soil conservation in areas hit hard by
the Dust Bowl. In 1997 it was added to the Federal Noxious Weed List. A 2015 article in Smithsonian describes it as a less fearsome scourge than it is typically portrayed as, but vast spreads of kudzu are not hard to find, especially in the southeastern United States. OK, so it’s not exactly “Feed Me Seymour” but we’d need to eat a colossal amount of kudzu to keep it in check. There are numerous kudzu cookbooks on the market.
Watercress is an aquatic, leafy green that humans and animals have consumed for millenia and is native to Europe and Asia. It is cultivated widely, but it is also listed as an invasive species in 46 states and is well-established in alkaline streams and springs across the country. It can choke streams, slowing the flow of water which raises water temperature affecting species such as brook trout. On the upside, it’s rich in vitamins and featured in lots of delicious recipes.
Red Swamp Crayfish
These pincered little devils have been celebrated in story, song and poem. They are native to the south-central U.S. and northeastern Mexico but through their use as bait and aquarium releases, have found their way west to Hawaii, north to Washington and nearly coast-to-coast. They are present on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They kill critical species in sensitive habitats by devouring tadpoles, amphibians as well as fish eggs and their chugging around makes clear water more turbid. They are easy to catch, there are millions of them and though they are scrumptious, they resemble, but sadly, don’t taste, like lobster. Recipes abound for this beast, including this one for crayfish Swedish-style.
Other Edible Beasts
If it grows, crawls, swims, flies or marginally resembles something you would eat while stranded on a desert island, the Internet will provide a recipe for it, invasive or not. The airgun enthusiast website americanairgunner.com has recipes for English sparrows and starlings, but I suppose you’d have to roast up quite a few of them to make a meal.
The Huffington Post has a series called “Eat The Enemy” which is the place to go when you have a hankering for jellyfish or snakehead. Wild boar are also a destructive invader in many U.S. states which, if you’ve got the notion to hunt them, have field-dressing and butchering skills, can be turned into breakfast, lunch and dinner. The social justice, environment and human rights website takepart.com has recipes and recommendations for what to kill and eat in the service of preserving ecosystems. Other sites such as invasivore.org, modernfarmer.com and eattheweeds.com give recipes (but few methods of capture) for invasive species.
Does Eating Invasive Species Lessen the Problem? Is It Even A Good Idea?
There are risks to eating and more importantly promoting consumption of invasive species. Jackson Landers’ book, Eating Aliens takes the position that these invaders are eradicable by intrepid foodies hunting them down and eating them. Others are more cautious and realistic. In a 2014 article, the independent, non-profit environmental magazine ensia.com outlines some of the pitfalls. A more scholarly treatment with similar conclusions appears in this paper by Nunez, et al. at the University of Tennessee.
First, mortality (consumption) has to vastly exceed reproduction (growth) for a long
time, to reduce, let alone eradicate a species. Secondly, forming a market for an invasive species creates an inducement to sustain the species to satisfy the market, or open the market elsewhere in which case eradication is impossible. Third, if a species become an important part of local cuisine, people’s hearts naturally follow their mouths and the species attains a cultural status that makes removal unthinkable. The wild boar is eaten (and beloved) by Hawaiians despite the environmental toll the animals put on island ecosystems. Lastly, U.S. law prohibits transporting and selling most invasive species as well as the sale of un-inspected meat. In addition to these the bottom line is that in most cases, because of the sheer numbers of species, how well-established they are in their non-native environments and the widespread extent of their intrusion, eradication by way of our stomachs is simply impossible.