Jessica Fanzo holding the raw ingredients to a cicada-licious meal.
When periodical cicadas emerge in massive numbers every 17 years, it's a feast for birds and small mammals. Some cicadas also end up in the bellies of humans, who say entomophagy (eating bugs) is not only delicious, but can also be beneficial to the environment.
"I think we need to start considering other alternative sources of protein," says Jessica Fanzo, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies food policy, with a focus on making the food we eat more sustainable.
Early on a recent warm morning, Fanzo could be found under a giant oak tree in a D.C. park, bent over the grass searching for cicada nymphs.
"These are the ones you want to eat because they don't have their wings yet," says Fanzo, holding up a brown crawly creature. "They haven't shed their casings and they're really quite tasty."
The trunk of the tree she's found is covered with red-eyed adult cicadas ready to fly and nymphs that are just busting out of their exoskeletons. The ground beneath the tree has a thick layer of the bugs, making walking a treacherous, crunchy business.
This is Fanzo's first periodical cicada emergence, and in recent days, she has been experimenting with different ways of cooking the insects. They're good deep-fried or roasted, she says.
Supporters of entomophagy say it can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. Globally, food production accounts for one-third of greenhouse emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of that is related to raising animals to eat.
Pound-for-pound, raising livestock produces as much as 100 times the amount of emissions as farming bugs. And it takes up to 10 times as much land. As the human population grows and people in developing countries become wealthier and eat more meat, those planet-warming emissions are on the rise.
More than 2,000 species of insects are on the menu in 140 countries around the world, according to the FAO.
"It's all cultural — what you're used to," Fanzo says about bug-eating squeamishness in this country.
Jessica Fanzo eyes an oak tree covered with cicadas.
If you stop to think about all the creatures and byproducts humans happily devour — chicken eggs, fermented cow's milk (aka yogurt), crabs, shrimp — cicadas don't seem so strange.
"Cicadas are basically like little ground shrimp. When you taste them, they're they taste kind of nutty. They're kind of buttery," Fanzo says.
Getting Hungry Yet?
The last time the Brood X cicadas emerged in the D.C. area, in 2004, Jenna Jadin was a first-year grad student in the entomology department at the University of Maryland.
"I was studying cricket sexual behavior, which meant that I was spending long hours in the laboratory in a cold room, just watching 14 pairs of crickets have sex," says Jadin, who now lives in Paris.
One afternoon, bored with observing crickets reproduce, Jadin started to work on Cicada-licious, a cookbook of cicada recipes. Jadin says she was inspired by reading about Native Americans eating the bugs. The university published it online, and she spent the next month or two fielding interview requests and doing cooking demonstrations.
"My favorite has been making them into either like a pecan pie or like little mini pecan pie, and I think it's simply because I really like pecan pie, but they take the place of the nuts quite readily."
There were a few duds, though.
"The cicadas rhubarb pie, that one was a bit of a misfire, I'd have to say." Jadin says cicadas can work in sweet or savory dishes, and easily take on the flavor of any sauce.
A teneral adult emerging from its exoskeleton.
Jadin is now working on a rewrite of Cicada-licious that will include more thoroughly tested recipes and chapters on the history and benefits of entomophagy.
"I hope that people do consider this as a viable food source, not just for developing nations that are food insecure, but for all of the world," Jadin says.
Of course, many people are not ready to start munching on cicadas. Some worry about pesticides cicadas may have been exposed to for years underground. Others don't feel right about chowing down on such unique creatures.
"I've begun to feel kind of bad for the cicadas," says John Cooley with the University of Connecticut, who is one of the top cicada researchers in the country. "They're something marvelous. So I think eating them on a whim, I guess I have problems with that."
Fanzo, though, suggests moderation.
"Would I recommend everyone going out and harvesting thousands of these? No," she says.
While we're talking, surrounded by hundreds of cicadas, they keep landing and climbing on us — unafraid and unable to escape predators.
Periodical cicadas' unusual survival strategy is to emerge in such great numbers that despite large numbers being squished or eaten, there are still plenty alive to mate and reproduce. Fanzo says sampling a few won't endanger them, and it's a great way to explore this alternative protein source.
"It is only once every 17 years, but it's an opportunity to at least try this whole range of insects," she says, plucking one of the plump insects that just landed on her.
What To Know If You Try Eating Cicadas
- Cicada connoisseurs recommend harvesting recently emerged nymphs, before they molt and shed their exoskeletons. This is best done in the early morning hours.
- Teneral adults — newly molted, but before their shells harden — are also good to eat.
- Harvest in a natural area, where pesticide use or other pollution is unlikely.
- Freeze the bugs to kill them prior to cooking. Wash them with water. Removing the legs is optional; you don't need to remove the nymphs' exoskeletons.
OK, Let's Get Cooking
Here are a couple of recipes, courtesy of Jenna Jadin. The full cookbook, Cicada-licious: Cooking And Enjoying Periodical Cicadas, can be found here.
Banana Cicada Bread
1/2 cup shortening3/4 cup sugar2 bananas, mashed2 cups flour1 teaspoon soda1 teaspoon salt1/2 cup chopped nuts2 eggs1/4 cup dry-roasted cicadas
Mix together all ingredients. Bake in greased loaf pan at 350 degrees F forabout one hour.
Yield: 1 loaf
Chocolate Covered Cicadas
Ingredients:8 squares of good-quality semi-sweet chocolate30 dry roasted cicadas
1. Roast teneral cicadas for 15 minutes at 225F.2. Meanwhile, melt chocolate in a double-boiler over low heat. Dipinsects in chocolate, place on wax paper and refrigerate until hardened.
Yield: 30 cicadas
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.