Austin Murphy likes to hunt snakehead fish on the tidal waters of the Potomac River. The fish, native to China, have earned local renown for their horror flick-like ability to breathe air and survive for short periods on land, their sharp teeth, and their thick, mucus-secreting skin. They're voracious carnivores with no known predators except humans and are all too at home in their adopted waters. Hunting them in the shallow, aquatic-plant-choked mouths of creeks and tributaries is tricky work, most easily done at night with a light and archery gear, though some fishermen prefer the more challenging method of daytime fly fishing. If the conditions are right, a skilled hunter can bag 200 pounds of snakehead in a summer season outing, says Murphy.
An avid fisherman and hunter, he's out for pleasure, but also to promote recreational snakehead hunting as a means to both help the environment and procure dinner. Snakehead, he says, "is excellent table fare." He filets them, seasons them with Old Bay, salt and pepper, then grills them right on the boat. Or, he says, "If I'm making sandwiches, I'll make starches and vegetables ahead. The fish is the star."
Although the impact of snakeheads on the environment is still being studied, they are one part of the larger problem of "invasives" muscling in on native species, hogging resources and decimating land, seas and crops to the tune of over $120 billion a year. Invasives can touch down on American land and waters by various means, ranging from stowing away in ship ballast water to being released into the wild by humans who have cultivated them as ornamental plants or kept them as pets. While non-native species have existed as long as humans have roamed the earth and probably even longer, globalization has accelerated both their spread and the damage they cause.
Like Murphy, many environmental organizations have embraced the idea of promoting the consumption of these invaders--from rogue seaweed to bristly, 200-pound feral hogs--as a way to raise public consciousness and get people involved in combatting a severe threat to biodiversity. "Conservation can get so serious and dire, we want to put a little fun back in," says Laura Huffman, state director of the Texas Nature Conservancy.
Most invasives won't be eradicted through human consumption alone, but Huffman and other environmentalists are okay with that. "What's important," she says, "is that we re-popularize and infuse some joy into the conversation over protection of resources."
But that begs the question: Do invasives taste good enough to earn a permanent spot on home and restaurant menus?
More and more people are trying hard to prove they do. The Corvallis, Oregon-based Institute for Applied Ecology's (IAE) Eradication by Mastication program includes an annual invasive species cook-off and a published cookbook called The Joy of Cooking Invasives: A Culinary Guide to Biocontrol (kudzu quiche! nutria eggrolls!). The program will hold a workshop this summer on how to dig, process, and cook up the highly invasive purple varnish clam. Tom Kaye, executive director of IAE, made one of three prize-winning entries at last year's cook-off: battered, deep-fried Cajun bullfrog legs. Second place went to popcorn English house sparrow drumsticks. Despite their poor labor-to-meat ratio, Kaye says, "they were tasty." Third prize went to nutria prepared three ways, including pulled-pork style and made into sausages.
To celebrate Earth Day this year, the Texas Nature Conservancy held a "Malicious but Delicious," dinner, where Austin chefs Ned and Jodi Elliott classed up a bunch of invasives for a four-course menu of popovers with a salpicon of tiger prawns, bastard cabbage orecchiette, porchetta of feral hog, and lime and Himalayan blackberry tart. Huffman says there are now 1.5 million feral hogs rototilling the arid Texas soil and eating everything in sight. Producing at least three litters a year for a total of 12 to 13 hoglets, she says, "they're prolific, they're smart, and hard to eradicate because they catch on to our tricks." Diners' response was enthusiastic, reports Elliott, who discovered that bastard cabbage, a federally designated "noxious weed" commonly seen along roadsides in Texas, has a delicious "earthy, almost parsley-like flavor."
Conservation biologist Joe Roman runs a website called Eat the Invaders, stocked with informative descriptions of a wide range of invasive species and recipes for preparing them. Roman's personal favorites are green crabs in their soft shell stage sautéed and served with French bread, periwinkle fritters and garlic mustard, which he says "makes an excellent pesto." Lionfish sushi, he adds, is "first-rate."
Roman notes that in England, cooks have targeted the highly invasive gray squirrel, which has become such a popular protein that "they're having a hard time keeping them on the menu." The Daily Mail reports that the invading grays have a sparked a revival in the Victorian delicacy squirrel pie.
There are signs that Americans, too, are warming to the idea of eating invasives, even outside of specially planned activist events. In the past few years, invasives have been showing up on the menus of restaurants whose primary focus is taste, not environmentalism. Scott Drewno, chef at the top-rated The Source, a Washington DC, Asian-inflected Wolfgang Puck restaurant, cures snakehead with kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, cane sugar, ginger and garlic for about nine hours, and then smokes it using sencha green tea and serves it with a sauce of garlic chili, soy sauce, rice vinegar and microgreens. Meaty, smoky and exotically spiced, the dish is gaining a following. Although it is not on the lunch menu, "people are coming in and asking for it," Drewno reports.
Chad Wells, chef at Rockfish in Annapolis, says of snakehead, "I've done it all: raw, sautéed, grilled, fried, cured, smoked." Two of his menu staples are Asian barbecue-style grilled snakehead tacos and for more adventurous eaters, the snakehead ceviche prepared with orange, mango, peppers and cucumber. Even though snakehead is much pricier than another invasive, blue catfish, Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says, "It's almost like a 'Fear Factor' thing, people just want to try it. It looks scary and they want to try this evil fish that can breathe air and 'walk' on land."
Often, Rockfish restaurant will get the truly determined "invasivore" who starts with the ceviche then moves on to the tacos, the wild boar sliders and then the blackened Potomac River blue catfish with remoulade, cheddar and grits.
The blue catfish, it turns out, is a far more dangerous invader than the sexier snakehead. "They get so damn big [other fish] can't compete with them," says Wells. They snack on native rockfish, and adult snakeheads have been found in their stomachs. The world record blue catfish: 143 pounds, caught in Virginia waters.