Before Eating Cicadas, Pause

It's less about eating screaming bugs, and more about eating things that have been in the ground for 17 years.
fried cicadas main getty.jpg

Fried cicadas (Getty Images)

"Spice Up Your Spring Soiree With a Timely, Tasty Treat." Scotch on the rocks? Why not Scotch on the cicadas? And so on

Over the next few weeks, as Brood II cicadas blanket the mid-Atlantic United States by the shovelful, including media/gastronomy hubs like New York City and Washington, D.C., expect to hear more and more about eating them. Magazines will at least mention cocktail recipes or run reflections on the sublime delicacy, the "shrimp of the land" -- if not features about how culturally important eating bugs is in certain corners, or how cultivating the millions of free calories could cure world hunger. Entomophagy in general is fascinating, thriving, and promising

The notion of eating cicadas in the U.S., though, is more precious. "See that abhorrent little monster there on the ground? Well, sir, I find it marvelous, and I'm going to put it inside of me. I find beauty in all things." Just another boring, ordinary dinner party? Not anymore, because we'll be serving big screaming bugs. At least it's something to talk about.

SHARK300200.jpgTime-lapse molting cicada (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week National Geographic pointed out that cicadas are gluten-free and low-carb. Which is true. Six years ago, the same magazine sold them as low-fat, which is also true. They are also soon to be enormously abundant, and eating them will not likely kill you. The same things can be said of wood chips, though, and pebbles. In too much of the world, food is too scarce; but abundance alone does not endorse consumption.

One of the most common concerns I hear is that cicadas will molt in our stomachs. Well, I actually don't hear that, but I do think about it. The answer is of course, they won't. It's amid that sort of concern, though, that some see eating cicadas as a manifestation of human dominance over the pestilence. Who said they could suck on our tree roots for all those years and then just decide to take over our nice suburban communities? If cicadas could eat us, they probably would, so we should eat them first. But that's only partly true. According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, "Periodical cicadas can hurt you only if they mistake you for a tree branch and try to feed, something that can happen only if you hold a cicada in your hand for a very long time (eventually this makes the cicada hot and thirsty)."

Some will mention that cicadas are arthropods, like shrimp and lobster. Eating them is just a step away. Just like how cats and cows are both mammals, so it's okay that you eat cats. Cats that have been living underground for 17 years. And that really is the thing. I'm sure I've eaten things that have been underground for 17 years, but not knowingly, not happily.

SHARK300200.jpgA 13-year cicada peers menacingly over a ledge in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2011. (Gerry Broome / AP)

Cultural differences and social etiquette aside, are they safe to eat? How many chemicals do they absorb underground? Entomologist Jenna Jadin, a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote a book of cicada recipes, so she's not impartial, but she says they're probably fine in small doses. Still the first page of her book reads: "The University of Maryland and the [cicada interest group] Cicadamaniacs do not advocate eating cicadas without first consulting your doctor." That caveat seems extreme, but, their words, not mine. It may refer to the possibility of a shellfish allergy. If you have a shellfish allergy, cicadas may not be for you. Meanwhile the site Cicada Mania warns that even dogs should be wary: "Pets can choke on the rigid wings and other hard body parts of the cicadas; pets will gorge themselves on cicadas, and possibly become ill and vomit; pets who consume cicadas sprayed with copious amounts of pesticide can and will die."

Take it all in context; an opportunity to re-evaluate everything. Here is what Americans eating Brood II cicadas looks like so far.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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