Eco-activists have long fought tooth and nail to rid their local environments of the invasive plants and animals that often show up in the wake of human settlement. Shovels, machetes, pick axes, blood, sweat and tears have all been employed in the fight to preserve ecological balance and protect native species. Out of pure desperation, some earth-loving activists have even been tempted to use herbicides like Round Up to destroy the invaders. Recently, however, a new culture has emerged in the mix, one that takes a more jubilant approach to the problem.
“It feels good to eat your enemies,” says Andrew Deines, a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University, who studies the ecology of invasive organisms. Far from being a confession of cannibalism, his statement exemplifies the wry humor that invasivores prefer to employ in their battle against non-native species as an alternative to the spiteful rhetoric of the past. The list of species consumed in invasivore circles ranges from kudzu and honeysuckle to feral pigs and garden snails, meaning invasivores can be both carnivores and herbivores.
After developing a taste for invasive species while studying them in graduate school, Deines and his colleagues created Invasivore.org to share their passion with the world. The movement started in their backcountry camps after long days of tramping around collecting invasive species and plotting about how to overthrow them, but it has become a new craze in the culinary world.
Invasivorism is definitely a local food phenomenon. In D.C. you can order snakehead, a scary-looking amphibious fish from Asia that has taken over parts of the Potomac, at fancy restaurants like The Source. In Louisiana, species like nutria, an aquatic rodent that has wreaked havoc in the bayous, is more likely to be on the menu. Out in the Midwest, a giant operation to harvest the millions of Asian carp clogging up the Mississippi River is underway, which may make them the next tilapia (which also happens to be a highly invasive species).
The Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) in Corvallis, Oregon is gearing up for its annual Invasive Species Cook-Off, which is set for September 28th, where some of the country’s top chefs gather each year to compete for the honors of best invasive species dish. “This year’s event will feature the internationally celebrated Chef Philippe Parola demonstrating the art of cooking nutria and Asian carp,” says Tamara Mullen, IAE’s outreach coordinator. Last year’s prize went to chef Jason Biga of Aqua, a foodie hotspot in Corvallis, for his wild boar dish that was marinated in a sauce of fermented invasive vegetables.
Through the hype and publicity that has come with turning our ecological foes into the latest gourmet fare, invasivores seek a paradigm shift in how we perceive exotic species. “They are an underutilized resource, for sure,” says Deines. A big part of the effort has to do with branding — changing the image of invasives from something evil to something appetizing. Chef Parola markets Asian carp as “Silver Fin“, for example. In the mid-Atlantic, local authorities have renamed snakefish as the “Spotted Channa“. An organic food company is marketing the fruit of invasive eleagnus bushes as Lycoberry, in hopes that it will be the next goji.
Chef Parola is even attempting to launch a TV show with a name that perfectly sums up the invasivore approach: “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!”