COLUMBIA — Wondering what to do with all those periodical cicadas creeping across your lawn, preparing to inundate your trees and unleash their cacophonous chorus?
The answer is simple: Cook 'em up and eat 'em.
And why not? Dogs devour them. Birds beat the branches for them. Fish find them irresistible. And apparently, a lot of people find the hideous insects a rare delicacy. When the big broods emerge, they break out the cookbooks. Punch "cicada recipes" into Google, and you'll get about 434,000 hits.
Just as Bubba Blue told Forrest Gump about shrimp in the classic movie, you can do just about anything with cicadas in the kitchen. You can boil 'em, fry 'em, bake 'em, saute 'em. You can make cicada pie, cicada wontons or cicada soup. Sprinkle some minced cicadas into your cereal. Or break out the blender, and you can quickly create a cicada smoothie or a fresh batch of cicada salsa.
Jenna Jadin of the University of Maryland Cicadamaniacs offers a Cicadalicious recipe for Emergence Cookies. "These should look like cicadas emerging out of a little pile of chunky mud!"
Do chocolate-covered cicadas sound appealing?
Mike Arduser thinks so. A natural history biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation in St. Louis, he had lunch with co-workers on Tuesday that featured cicadas dipped in chocolate for dessert. The entrees included a pizza, one half topped with whole cicadas and pepperoni, the other half with cicadas alone. Spicy cicada stir fry and a pesto cicada pasta followed.
"We all finished our plates," Arduser said.
Arduser described the taste of a cicada as "nutty." The texture, he said, is chewy and has a slight crunch. He compared it to eating dried fruit.
So, heck. If a cicada flies into your potato salad during a picnic this holiday weekend, just stir it in and go with it. But don't tell anybody. Make it a surprise ingredient for a lucky guest.
Insects biologically are classified in phylum Arthropoda, just like lobsters, crabs, shrimp and crawfish. Maybe eating cicadas isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. People around the globe have been munching insects and other arthropods since the beginning, according to a 2004 University of Maryland study.
"Throughout the world insects are eaten quite a bit," MU entomology professor Bruce Barrett said. "I think it's our problem because we have a culture where people turn up their nose at eating insects. It's strange that we haven't embraced it."
Arduser shared some tips on how to catch the best cicadas for your dish:
"The trick is to get on it quick. You want the cicadas that are just emerging, the tenerals. They're soft for just a few hours," Arduser said. Tenerals are soft-bodied arthropods that have shed their outer cuticles. Go out early in the day, any time between 4 a.m. and noon, and find cicadas at the bases of trees. Unlike the cicadas singing high in the branches, those on the ground are just emerging. They will be white or pale yellow — but still ugly.
- "Ideally you want females," Arduser said. "They have more meat." It can be tough to tell the difference, but female cicadas will have a sharper, pointier bottom. That's the appendage they use to lay eggs.
- When preparing cicadas, consider removing the wings and legs. It's OK to eat them, but they're not so tasty. Be sure to chew them up good. The legs might tickle going down the gullet.
Avoid using cicadas found in places where pesticides might have been used. Cicadas don't travel far from where they emerge, but be aware.
Like most insects, Barrett said, cicadas contain protein, but he was unsure whether they carry any additional nutritional value. But no food is complete by itself, he noted. He's eaten caterpillars, ants and termites, but humankind can live on none of those alone.
Still, cicadas can be an important part of a balanced diet. Barrett said he isn't squeamish.
"I wouldn't have a problem eating a cicada."