SALEM, OREGON —
International travel and trade has had an unwelcome side effect in terms of spreading weeds, pests and non-native fish and animals. Wherever you live, you may have seen traditional eradication methods employed... such as herbicide spraying, biological controls, targeted hunting or removal by hand.
In the northwestern state of Oregon recently, another control method saw a brief revival: namely, cooking and eating them.
Creative chefs and more than 200 adventurous diners converged on a banquet hall at an Oregon vineyard to nibble on course after course of invasive species.
Chef Matt Bennett of Albany, Oregon, had prepared piquillo pepper stuffed with crayfish, dandelion green spanakopita and house-made wild boar sausage cooked with Sky High Brewing's Berry Invasive Ale. And those were just the appetizers. Still to come... buttermilk-fried bullfrog legs, braised wild boar with Himalayan blackberry glaze and Asian carp boulettes. None of those are native to the American northwest.
Diners Rosamaria and Greg Mann sampled deep-fried nutria. That's a rodent native to South America, where it's known as coypu. However, this one was trapped locally.
Rosamaria declared it "a little chewy, but tasty." Greg also enjoyed it, and found it "a little more tender than rabbit."
The point of this affair was to highlight the range of edible invasive weeds, birds, fish and mammals around us. These invaders are costly to control. They crowd out native plants and animals and can change entire landscapes.
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em!
The title of this annual dinner is "Eradication by Mastication." But even the group putting on the gala - the Institute for Applied Ecology - admits you can't get rid of the invaders by eating them.
“The problem is too big for that," said its director, Tom Kaye. "And also, the parts of some of these things that we eat - some of the plants - if we, say for example, collect blackberries, that does not eradicate blackberries. You need to mow them or do more in order to get blackberries out."
But one of the celebrity chefs on hand made an energetic case for the culinary approach. Philippe Parola from Louisiana demonstrated for a rapt audience how to butcher a nutria and fillet an enormous carp, and said harvest pressure could keep invaders like this in check.
“When I hear 'cooking the problem is not the solution,' well, I'm not saying it is the solution," he said. "But it can be a part of the solution. If you give us a chance and work with us, I guarantee you we can make it a heck of a solution."
The big three Parola would like to see on more than a few U.S. menus are: nutria, Asian carp and feral pigs.
In North America, imported nutria escaped from fur farms and now are causing widespread environmental damage. Meanwhile, federal and state agencies in the American Midwest are spending tens of millions of dollars per year to control the spread of several Asian carp species, hoping to keep them out of the Great Lakes. Wild pigs - which carry diseases and parasites, threaten livestock and damage crops - are now found in 45 states.
A delicate balance
But Wyatt Williams, a member of the Oregon Invasive Species Council, hopes the exotic entrees don't get too popular on dinner plates.
“If people start to get a taste for Asian carp," he reflected, "then perhaps it could be turned into a fishery, and maybe become popular, and people won't want them to be eradicated."
Meat inspection and public health rules present another hurdle when it comes to wild game in particular.
If an American consumer or restaurant wanted to buy wild boar chops or nutria nuggets, they'd have a hard time finding them. As several of the chefs at this invasive species dinner noted, the food safety system in the U.S. is not set up to handle wild-harvested meat.