"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 12, 2013

Upping The Ante–Invasivores Are The New Foodies

There has been a lot of concern recently about invasive species, and although restricting any ecosystem to its original inhabitants is about as likely as keeping Mexicans out with a fence, people are trying.  Almost everyone, that is.  A new eco-foodie-hunting-gathering movement has been gaining momentum. Realizing that it is a near impossibility to keep out so-called ‘invasive’ species, adherents have taken to culling them.  Whether snakehead fish, feral pigs, or Asian seaweed, these fauna and flora are to be harvested, cooked and eaten.

Actually non-native species have existed since time immemorial and only in this era of globalization have eco-zealots become exercised about ‘the damage they cause’. It is not clear what exactly is the ‘damage’, for eco-systems are dynamic, ever-changing environments. Species go extinct, others show up. Japanese maples are imported to America, potatoes were shipped from the New World back to the Old.  Who in 15th Century Spain had ever seen a bell pepper until the Conquistadors brought it back from Mexico and found it could be cultivated in Andalusia?

Webster’s Dictionary sums up the issue of invasive vs. guest species in its definition of a weed: “A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a weed per se.  It’s just that we don’t like it and prefer our hydrangeas.

Admittedly, I am not an ecologist and cannot lay out a laissez-faire scenario when it comes to snakeheads.  Would they completely take over, eat every other species of fish, grow to enormous size and travel in flotillas down the Potomac River? Or would they find their niche, eat one stratum below, knocking the fish order around a bit, but not causing too much of disruption?

In any case, sportsmen are fishing for snakeheads.  This is easier said than done, however, as Nancy Matsumoto reports in The Atlantic (7.12.13):

Snakeheads, 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.

In order to catch them without getting bitten, fishermen resort to bow-fishing.  The fish hang out in thick, aquatic plant-choked mouths of creeks and tributaries, so regular lines would get tangled. Rumor has it that there is a new fringe element of snakehead fishermen are called Extreme Noodlers. Noodling, practiced primarily in the Southern states, is a way to catch catfish with bare hands.  The sportsman sticks his hands down into the murky water of a riverbank, and hand-wrestles the fish which can get as big as 25 lbs.

Now, the snakehead is a lot nastier, and these Extreme Noodlers are really pushing the sport to its limit.

According to snakehead connoisseurs, if cooked properly the fish can be delicious and the meal a fine ending to a day on the water.  Fileted, seasoned with Bay Spice, and grilled, say connoisseurs, is the right way to go.

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.

I imagine that just about any fish would taste good prepared like this.  Just the nine hours baked in ginger and garlic will kill any fishy taste; and then smoking it and slathering it with soy sauce, garlic chili, and rice vinegar will surely make it unrecognizable.

The challenge is no less for other invasive species.

Tom Kaye, executive director of the Institute for Applied Ecology, 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.


Popcorn sparrow (left) and deep-fried Cajun bullfrog legs (right)

The ‘labor-to-meat ratio’ is mentioned casually; but catching, plucking, gutting, and de-beaking enough sparrows to make a meal has got to take a lot of time.  I remember when a Parisian friend of mine fished on the banks of suburban Lake Barcroft to catch bluegills, the small, spiny, bony fish we called Johnny Roaches in Connecticut.  He said he wanted to prepare a friture or frittata. These bluegills never grew to over 4 inches, and the amount of flesh per inch was insignificant, yet Emmanuel fished for hours to catch dinner; and then spent hours more to clean and prepare them.  Ahhh, the French.

Asian carp are pretty much in the same category of nasty fish, but in today’s foodie market, there are always customers":

The carp are riddled with pinbones and possess a bone structure that chef Kerry Heffernan says "make an inner-city map of London look uncomplicated." "This stuff isn't meant to be fast food," another chef declares, and admits that his challenging fare is not for everyone. "Every single day," he says, "we have people who walk out on us."

Many consider Noma of Copenhagen to be the best restaurant in the world.  This is surprising, for one would think that a chef who forages for most of his ingredients in the fields, estuaries, shores, and woods of Denmark and serves weeds, scruff, and lichens, could not compete with the best food maestros of Paris, San Francisco, and New York. Not only does he fare well against the best, at $450 a head for his tasting menu, he is financially well-off.

Nice, big, meaty feral hogs are another story altogether. The labor-to-meat ratio is favorable and they taste good (think Tuscan porchetta) They are, however, ornery, smart, and hard to catch:

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,Laura Huffman of the Texas Nature Conservancy says, "they're prolific, they're smart, and hard to eradicate because they catch on to our tricks."

Texas has taken the feral business to commercial success, showing that money can be made if you have the right product:

The Nilgai, native to India and released in Texas in the 1930s, alone number upwards of 60,000 in Texas, the largest population anywhere in the world. Hughes helps keep populations in check by harvesting them on 30 to 40 Texas ranches a year, taking a mobile processing unit into the field with a U.S. meat inspector in attendance. Customers for the meat include high-end restaurants The French Laundry, Vetri in Philadelphia and celebrity chef John Besh's restaurants in San Antonio.

This is why I love capitalism – it is opportunistic, entrepreneurial, and fast off the mark.  No sooner do invasive species start crowding out our native wildlife, than we catch them, cook them, serve them, and make money off them. The chefs at Noma, the snakehead places in DC, and the feral hog butcheries of Texas all catch on quick. They understand the locavore zeitgeist and ratchet it up to a new level.

While there are certainly diners who will appreciate Noma’s Fresh Ragweed Salad with Nettles, there are far more who, picking the thorns and bristles out of their teeth, will eat it because it makes a statement. Which, again, is why I love capitalism.  A product to make money has to be more than just a product.  The new breed of Invasivore chefs, restaurateurs, and marketers are my commercial idols.

1 comment:

  1. Nice take on my article, Ron. You're right. Invasives are opportunists and so are humans.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.