In 2004, Caroline Goon heard that the periodical cicadas that had just swarmed the D.C. area were edible. After considering different advice on how to eat them — with or without wings, headless or head on — the 20-year-old went to a tree near her apartment complex in Wheaton, Md., pulled a few adult cicadas off and gave them a quick fry. The result?
“I remember distinctly that at the time, it tasted like a crispy, salty-ish snack,” she says.
Insect-eating — a.k.a. entomophagy — is not common in the United States, where prevalent cultural norms include a disgust factor. But since a 2013 report from the United Nations, advocates here have promoted insects as a sustainable protein source, leading to a wave of high-tech bug powders and snacks over the past few years. And cicadas are eaten in many other cultures. They have also historically been a food source for some Native American tribes.
Now that cicadas are emerging again in the Eastern U.S., chefs, entomologists and insect-curious folks are prepared to explore the culinary possibilities.
In 2004, Goon went with a simple fry, as she didn’t have many concrete guidelines. This year’s emergence comes with more instruction — and more possibilities — for preparation.
You’ll need a bit of knowledge on their life stages to create the best edible experience. For the past 17 years, these Brood X cicadas have slowly matured underground, sucking on plant sap. Over the past few weeks, nymphs have created tunnels from which they’ll emerge when the soil is warm enough. These nymphs will pop out of the ground, climb upward, then molt their nymphal case, just like a crab casting off an old exoskeleton. At this stage, when they are called tenerals, they will appear creamy white, with a few blushes of yellow. They will then develop their full adult exoskeleton, which is black and dark brown, and be ready to mate.
Their teneral and nymph stages are ideal for eating, says Martha Weiss, professor of biology at Georgetown University and co-director of its environmental studies program.
The challenge with eating these stages? “They are a short-lived phase,” says Weiss, who has studied insects for decades. In other words, if you’re even a little curious, be ready to collect them. You can decide later if you actually want to partake, but Weiss recommends against eating full-grown adults, which she says are the “least good to eat” and may be infected with a fungus that could render them unappetizing.
The first time Weiss saw periodical cicadas was in 2004. As a self-proclaimed “science mom,” she was excited to encounter them with her two young daughters.
“I let them stay up until midnight so that we could go outside and pluck cicadas from their nymphal cases as they emerged,” she says. She served them up, dipped in chocolate, to her daughters’ classmates — to mixed reactions of intrigue, awe and disgust. “My older daughter is 23 now, and I still run into her classmates who say, ‘I remember that you gave me a bug to eat when I was in second grade.’”
You may have already seen light brown nymphs if you’ve been gardening. Weiss has started kitchen testing with nymphs she found by turning over flagstones. If you are concerned about pesticides, gather them from places where fertilizer or chemicals have not been spread, such as an untreated yard or wooded area. You’ll probably have better luck looking for nymphs and tenerals at night. Pop them into a container and freeze it to kill them humanely. When you’re ready to cook, remove from the freezer and rinse very well to remove any dirt. Parboil or blanch them for about two minutes to “firm them up,” and then they’re ready to cook as you like. If you have food allergies, especially to shellfish, you may want to forgo or take extra caution. Weiss advises not to eat empty nymph cases; you’ll know because they are hollow and split open.
As a chef and executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, whose mission is to promote insects as a sustainable protein source, Joseph Yoon plans to try them at every point in their life cycle, drawing on nose-to-tail ideas of cooking.
“There’s so much beauty in the unknown,” he says. “I plan on just exhausting all the possibilities.”
This means roasting, frying, turning them into a powder, attempting to cook them live like lobster and perhaps figuring out if he can salt-cure the eggs like caviar. Yoon will work with entomologists and other specialists on this venture, which he says “will help further our understanding of the functionality and manners in which we can incorporate insect protein into our diet.”
Zack Lemann, director of animal collections at the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans, is planning a “pilgrimage specifically to see this phenomenon, because I never have.” But he has already tasted them: He’s cooked a few times with shipped frozen specimens.
“I have always been told that the teneral adult cicadas whose exoskeletons are still soft are better tasting,” he said. “I don’t know why that is, but I hope to collect some and maybe even do a little taste test and compare newly emerged adults to some that are clearly hardened and dried and able to move and fly.”
Weiss nicknamed cicadas “tree shrimp” for their closeness in genetic makeup to shrimp of the sea — and because, as she put it, “if you’re happy eating shrimp, then there’s really no reason not to try cicada, which is like a shrimp except living in a cleaner environment.” But she describes their flavor as far different: nutty, with a bit of an asparagus taste. Lemann describes them as woody and earthy; Goon likened them to a potato chip. “The honest truth is that they don’t have a ton of flavor,” says Weiss, so you can experiment with spices, sauces and other flavorings.
Already, people are preparing for how exactly they’ll make the most of the cicada emergence. Goon, now 36 and in Silver Spring, is excited to share the edible experience with her children.
“I have two little boys, and they really like bugs and insects,” she says. “I’ve been slowly getting them very excited about Brood X coming out. It’s a unique experience, and I want to be able to share that with them. And I also want them to catch the insects themselves, because I think that’s going to be very fun.”
Ethan Maron, a 37-year-old D.C. lawyer, has also mapped out his plans for his first taste, inspired by the grasshopper tacos at Oyamel, a José Andrés restaurant focused on Mexican cuisine.
“I’ll probably roast them up with a bit of salt, pepper, maybe some chile, make some eggs, grab some tortillas and make some cicada breakfast tacos,” he says. So far, no friends plan to join him, but he hopes to harvest a few extras, just in case.
Weiss says you could saute cicadas in butter with garlic, marinate them, roast them, toast like nuts and, of course, dip in chocolate like she did for her kids years ago. She has worked on a small book on cicadas, including information on food preparation, which will be available soon.
Jenna Jadin, an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, wrote up a PDF cookbook of cicada recipes called “Cicada-Licious” in 2004, which you could use as a guide for your first batch. Lemann suggests making shish kebabs, alternating cicadas with vegetables. You can remove the wings and legs if you like — Lemann notes that the wings can be a bit leathery if you don’t get them crisp enough — but you can also leave them.
Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert and author of “Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition,” has had the bugs sauteed, blanched in a salad, in pie and in a stir fry. Battered and fried with cocktail sauce was his preferred method, but Kritsky said he no longer eats the cicadas. Although periodical cicadas seem plentiful, Kritsky argues that deforestation, urban sprawl and more have contributed to their decline.
“I want your grandchildren to be able to see them,” he said.
Weiss doesn’t think local residents would eat enough to affect population numbers. An estimated 20 to 30 cicadas per square foot are expected in some locations. Cicadas’ evolutionary strategy rests on “predator satiation,” meaning that they reproduce in large enough numbers to fully satiate any species that would eat them.
“There are so, so many of them that there will still be plenty to survive,” says Weiss. “We are just one more predator.”
Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.
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