Can you think of a good reason not to try a cicada, other than “ew”? I’ve posed this question to numerous friends and family, even my partner’s extended relatives, now that Brood X is swarming parts of the United States. Eating cicadas just makes sense, even for someone like me, who’s been a stalwart vegetarian since basically the last time they appeared, in 2004. They’re a bountiful and easy-to-forage protein source, they very likely won’t make you sick, and they’ve made appearances on some Native American and Chinese dinner tables for centuries. (Even Aristotle ate them.) Plenty of evidence suggests that they don’t feel pain the way other creatures do, if that kind of thing is important to you. I watched Fear Factor back when Joe Rogan was cool, I’d remind everyone. “Ew” alone cannot stop me.
Except maybe it can! a tiny voice burbled in my head as I pulled into the packed driveway at Cicadafest last Saturday afternoon. The event at the Green Farmacy Garden, a medicinal-plant sanctuary and educational garden in Fulton, Maryland, promised live music, cicada-inspired art, and yes, a cicada tasting menu. Throughout the garden, I could see maybe 30 people, a mix of couples and families, milling around. Volunteers, some barefoot, were running platters of cicadas in and out of the building. Among them was Veri Tas, the garden’s events and communications manager, a vegan who swore off industrial meat and dairy a decade ago and who was inspired to host Cicadafest partly as a way to try insect protein. You could easily have mistaken the event for a neighborhood barbecue hosted by someone’s environmentalist aunt, were it not for the conspicuous collection of folding tables holding our snacks. I approached them hesitantly, trying to ignore the beady red eyes and disapproving screeches of their cousins from the nearby bushes.
And lo—the spread before me was truly something to behold. Air-fried cicadas! Cicadas covered in vegan chocolate! Skewers of grilled cicadas licked by charcoal flames! Roasted cicadas, rolling around a lasagna tray like gumballs in the world’s most quarter-starved dispenser! To the left were all the condiments you could ever ask for: Barbecue sauce, cocktail sauce, malt vinegar, ketchup, Italian dressing, spicy cashew dressing, Soyaki, and more.
Air-fried felt like a safe place to start, especially once I noticed the flurry of Old Bay seasoning being sprinkled onto each batch. I grabbed a set of two on a toothpick, declining the extra roll in even more Old Bay (I’m at work here). The cicadas, once pale, were now golden and browned, their signature eyes turned black from the heat. I popped one into my mouth.
Not bad! Certainly not buggy. The entire critter crackled in my mouth like a piece of earthy popcorn. I caught a subtle nuttiness underneath the crunch, almost reminiscent of a roasted chickpea. By the fourth or fifth chew I was almost starting to like it, until I swallowed and realized that a teeny-tiny leg was lingering on my tongue. The toothpick went into the trash, along with the other cicada.
Next up was a chocolate-covered cicada, which by comparison felt like cheating. Thanks to the thickness of the coating, I was easily able to pretend that I was eating a large chocolate-covered raisin. From there, it was all downhill. My third and fourth cicadas, which were grilled, tasted like smokier, chewier versions of the air-fried one, with a slightly meatier flavor that made it clear why cicada eaters compare them to shrimp.
Nowhere was that shellfish flavor more evident than in the oven-roasted cicada, though I was quickly distracted from that thought by the realization that the bug had exploded in my mouth like a Gusher. My tongue awash in bug guts, I reconsidered all the choices I’d made in my life that had brought me to that moment.
It turns out that cooking technique is everything. The roasted cicadas hadn’t been blasted with enough heat to properly dry up the squish. Other attendees I consulted agreed with me: the crunchier, the better. When deciding what cooking methods to highlight at Cicadafest, Tas told me, they had consulted foragers before embarking on a series of test runs. Tas and the other volunteers had learned to harvest the cicadas at dusk on the very same day that they’d emerged from their shells, ensuring that their adult exoskeletons (and massive wings) wouldn’t develop. Loading them into the freezer right away served the dual purpose of preserving them and killing them gently. When it came time to play in the kitchen, sautéed cicadas were quickly ruled out for being “too buggy,” and a shrimp-boil-inspired experiment was abandoned following disastrous results. “My brother decided to try boiling them with beer and Old Bay,” Tas explained. “He put one in his mouth and spat it right out all over the place.”
So aside from the “ew” factor, why aren’t we all eating cicadas? Part of the problem is that while pound for pound, cicadas have about as much protein as red meat, you would need to eat a lot of bugs to get anywhere close to the weight of a burger patty. But if you want to eat just a few, you’re back in snack territory, where plenty of fine non-insect options await. In 2013, my colleague James Hamblin wrote that for him, the big turnoff wasn’t cicadas’ classically buggy look, but the plain fact that they’ve spent 17 years underground. Valid. But during all that beauty sleep, cicada nymphs remain tightly nestled inside their waterproof exoskeletons. From another perspective, cicadas are a food that comes prepackaged and individually wrapped.
Other entomophagists (that’s someone who eats bugs, which I guess is what I do now) and I will tell you what you’ve no doubt heard before: There’s a lot to be gained environmentally from incorporating insects into the Western diet. It’s true—farming bugs for human and animal consumption has a much lower CO2 output than the food production it could hypothetically replace. But guess what other dietary changes can also help curb CO2 emissions? Eating beans, cooking with less gas, reducing food waste, and all sorts of other adjustments that don’t result in stray legs and liquified guts in my mouth.
I wanted to come home from Cicadafest with my head held high, sweeping bugs off trees and right into the oven for my meat-eating friends to munch on with glee. But for me, the joy within those exoskeletons is limited, no matter how much Old Bay is sprinkled on top. Cooking them would feel like a game of Russian roulette, and I can’t in good conscience risk feeding someone I love a spring-loaded soft one. I lost this round, but call me back in 17 years when we’ve perfected the recipe.