The Hottest Item on the Menu? The Neighborhood Pest

Why you should try the sustainable trend of eating invasive species

plated meal of kelp, small crabs, and a sauce on a rocky plate

Courtesy of Miya's Sushi

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the roadhow to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

Lionfish sushi, snakehead tacos, kudzu quiche, boiled phragmites, nutria eggrolls—welcome to the always adventurous, often altruistic, and occasionally wacky world of invasivorism. The growing food movement pairs culinary curiosity with environmental and animal conservation by promoting the consumption of malicious yet delicious invasive plant and animal species in the very places they’ve become problematic.  

“The most destructive force in the world is the human appetite,” says early invasivorism adopter Bun Lai, who created an invasive species menu at his New Haven sushi restaurant Miya’s in 2005 and now focuses on invasivore dinners, cooking classes, and foraging experiences on his terrestrial and aquatic farms. “Humans have eaten and hunted away countless species and destroyed habitats to raise the things we eat, so it makes sense to instead aim that appetite at species that are destructive to the environment in order to balance out those habitats.”

As the diet’s many catchy mantras (i.e., “Eradication by mastication" and “Swallow 'em into submission.”) suggest, the goal is to nosh on non-native nuisances to control their populations, curb crop/habitat damage they cause, and limit the often deadly effect they have on endemic residents of forests, coral reefs, coastlines, and rivers. Populations grow quickly as adopted environments tend to lack the natural predators or pathogens of their home habitats.

Some U.S. infestations date back to exploration and colonization, like dandelions. In contrast, others result from modern-day mistakes like carp being brought in to clean up mucky aquaculture facilities in the 1970s, only to escape into rivers during big floods. According to Scientific American, invasives “are the second-most important cause of global biodiversity loss,” second only to habitat destruction. The negative impact of invasives costs the U.S. tens of billions of dollars each year, and that's a conservative estimate.

The most destructive force in the world is the human appetite

The high price is shocking even when you single out one critter like feral pigs, including relatives of those brought to the West Indies by Christopher Columbus and the continental U.S. by explorer Hernando de Soto and Eurasian boars imported to spice up hunting trips. According to a Texas Parks & Wildlife report, hungry hogs reside in 35 states as of 2016, number an estimated 6.9 million, and individually cost $300 per year in damage caused and control efforts. (Do the math, and that's a $2.1 billion price tag today.) 

“Texas has about half the national population. They do untold financial and environmental damage by eating crops, contaminating water supplies, competing with native wildlife for food and habitat, and [through] collisions with cars,” says chef Jesse Griffiths from Austin’s Dai Due. He also offers butchery classes and three-day hunts through The New School of Traditional Cookery and is releasing "The Hog Book," which contains over 100 recipes for using the meat. "[Serving it is] win, win," he said. "It's just plain good, and every pound we serve is a protein source that doesn't have to be fed, fenced, [given] veterinary care or antibiotics, or transported long distances.”

Invaders are almost always introduced to a new environment by humans. It can be accidentally like when parasitic sea lampreys or wakame seaweed hitch a ride in the hull of a transoceanic cargo ship or carelessly and foolishly like when people dump pet lionfish into the ocean.

Considering most biodiversity loss is directly connected to humans, Lai feels it’s only logical that we should actively clean up the mess. 

“The [mass extinction period] we’re in right now is because of us, really the wealthiest of us. We’re at a critical point where everyone should be thinking about how everything we buy, do and eat impacts the planet,” he said. “We have to make revolutionary changes in the way we choose to live because what we’re doing now isn’t working." To Lai, changing your diet is an easy way to make a positive impact. “Eating wild and invasive things [is] one of the most local, regenerative, seasonal, and sustainable ways to achieve that goal,” he said. 

meal of carp, mixed greens, zucchini fritters, and corn on a white plate

Courtesy of Freight House

Sara Bradley, "Top Chef" season 16 runner-up, is a vocal champion of consuming Asian carp, the aforementioned fishy fugitives that treat the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers, their tributaries, and several lakes as personal buffets. Instead of focusing on the invasive angle at her Paducah, Kentucky, restaurant Freight House, Bradley markets the fish as a “hyper-local, wild-caught seasonal product.”

“People generally want to do their part, especially if all it requires is having a delicious dinner. We lay out the health benefits, benefits to the local economy, the low carbon footprint. We know who caught it and where. It’s only been out of water for four hours when it gets to the kitchen,” Bradley said. "You have to convince them that they want to consume this, but usually only once."

Chef William Dissen, owner of three North Carolina restaurants and a United Nations culinary ambassador, attributes the need to "convince" and overall invasive image problem to unfamiliarity. “Wild food seems dangerous because we as a civilization have become disconnected [from] where our food comes from,” he lamented, adding that he partners on a forage-and-feast tour with Asheville outfit No Taste Like Home in an attempt to ratchet up exposure to his favorite regional invasive ingredients like multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, and knotweed. “If we were able to take the time to be more thoughtful and more connected to the world around us, we would fight issues like climate change more abruptly. We can make a change in the world through the food we eat.”

Meat eaters aren't the only ones who can do their part. Contrary to popular belief, not all invasives walk or swim. Take kudzu, sometimes called "the vine that ate the South." First introduced at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as an ornamental plant and then widely promoted as an erosion controller, it now blankets an estimated 7.4 million southern acres.

"Instead of going scorched Earth with chemicals that have indirect impacts on surrounding species, we can be better stewards by yanking it out and eating it,” says chef Alex Perry of Vestige in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, who uses the leaves, flowers, and roots to "produce the greatest thickener a kitchen pantry can have."

Bradley's carp advocacy doesn't stop in the kitchen—she also knows how important it is to get support from government agencies and big corporations. It's why she regularly writes fast-food giants like McDonald’s about using carp instead of "trucking Atlantic fish to middle America" and policymakers about incorporating it into school and prison menus. “Restaurants aren’t going to make a significant dent in the [invasive] problem. We help, but it’s going to take the big guys using it on a wide scale,” she said.

Some state agencies, destinations, and conservation groups currently waging war against invasive hordes are banking on people's innate desire to save the planet as well, but also using social media to create campaigns and programs to stir up an appetite for destruction doers.

Close-Up Of Lionfish Against Black Background
Karl Fentler / EyeEm / Getty Images

This happens most regularly with lionfish, which have become a major issue since the '90s in the Caribbean, South America, the Gulf of Mexico, and especially Northwest Florida, which has the highest concentration outside their South Pacific and Indian Ocean home waters. The fringed fish consume native species important to local economies, like grouper and snapper.

First, the Florida government stepped in, making them easy to harvest. "You don’t need a license. There's no season, no limits on size, or how many you can keep," said Destin Fort-Walton Beach's coastal resource manager Alex Fogg.

Fogg also spearheads community events meant to infuse joy into resource protection, including the Emerald Coast Open, the world’s largest lionfish spearfishing tournament, and Lionfish Restaurant Week, which coincide with Florida's Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day Festival

“People get really into it. Scuba diving is pretty awesome, but spearfishing takes it to a whole new level,” Fogg said. “And for the destination, removing 15,000 fish in a weekend helps provide relief to the native species and the ecosystem. The fantastic dishes chefs come up with create demand to eat it so more people will hunt it on a regular basis. It's a positive cycle to jumpstart.”

It helps that lionfish are the perfect gateway invasive as, unlike nutria, they look and taste similar to seafood people are already accustomed to. They’re extremely versatile, making great sushi, burgers, ceviche, tacos, and fingers—and, for better or worse, they're also plentiful in many beachy vacation spots.

Fortunately, that means lots of tourists to join the fight. Belize’s Turneffe Island Resort trains interested guests on the Hawaiian sling and organizes hunt-specific snorkels and dives, while Curaçao's renowned lionfish huntress Lissette Keus also takes divers on expeditions and stock her Lionfish and Mangoes kitchen with the catch.

We help but it’s going to take the big guys and institutions using it on a wide scale

As with every movement, invasivorism has its naysayers. Some call it gimmicky. Most argue that it won’t move the needle enough. Then there are opponents like Ludo and Otto Brockway, co-directors of a new Kate Winslet-narrated documentary, "Eating Our Way To Extinction," which examines the high cost of animal agriculture. They believe veganism is the only path to salvation from ecological collapse. 

“We would argue that eating invasive species is unnecessary. When we leave nature alone, it seems to have a wonderful way of bringing back balance to itself without human interference,” they said. “The best thing to do for both your health and the health of the planet is to move towards a plant-based diet. If the whole world went 50 percent vegan overnight, it would give us great hope for the survivability of our species.”

Food for thought to be sure, but if you’re still interested in taking invasivorism for a (taste) test drive, Lai is thrilled to report that there are many more opportunities to do so than when he started.

“I used to get my feelings hurt all the time because people would take one look at the menu and run out the door,” he recalled. “Then people started flying in from around the world to eat my food. Other chefs are adding invasives to menus. Customers are seeking them out. The more people exposed to the concept, the more likely it will catch on.”

Article Sources
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  1. Scientific American. "Can We Really Eat Invasive Species into Submission?" May 19, 2017.

  2. Commonwealth of Kentucky. "Invasive Carp Information."