Eating Aliens

Nutria: tastes like chicken.

In the January 2012 edition of Weed Wars, titled Goats, Beavers & Carp, Oh My, I talked about the rebranding of Asian carp into silverfin, served as a delicacy in fancy restaurants as part of a campaign to cull their numbers. You see, the carp had escaped their original use – to eat algae at wastewater treatment plants – and gotten into the Mississippi River watershed, and all the way to the Great Lakes, and were causing all sorts of havoc. One of the poster children of invasive species.

Well, in the book Eating Aliens, by Jackson Landers, which I just finished reading, the author takes us on a tour of southeastern America, including some islands offshore, as he attempts to hunt, kill, butcher, prepare and eat several invasive species – including Asian carp. Overall, the message of the book is that many animal species that have become nuisances or worse actually taste pretty good, and with marketing, could join Asian carp – oops, silverfin – on your dinner table. Umm!

Many of the species Landers hunts in the book became invasive after being released by pet owners who couldn’t handle them anymore. That was the case with the spiny-tailed iguana, which now munches gardens on Gasparilla Island in Florida, in addition to the eggs of the native gopher tortoise, a keystone species of this area. Landers brings us with him as he navigates a maze of permits, local home owners, and laws to bring down some spiny-tails in a residential neighborhood, and then cook the meat of several with a marinade of lime, cilantro, tequila and some spices. A local hired on to help eradicate the spiny-tails described the taste as “like chicken with the texture of crab.” Umm, umm, iguana tacos!!

Next, Landers is on the hunt for green iguanas, cousins to the spiny-tails, in the Florida Keys. This species unfortunately likes the nicker nut, a plant that also happens to be the primary food source of the endangered Miami blue butterfly. The last Miami blue was seen a few years ago, on Bahia Honda Key, where the green iguana runs rampant. After taking down a few, Landers skins them (he says the hide would be a great material for making belts, books, knife sheaths and more), and sautéed the meat (“all in the tail and legs”) in olive oil and garlic into a ragout sauce. Verdict – “like its spiny-tailed cousin, green iguana turns out to taste pretty much like chicken.”

Landers next takes on wild pigs, “one of the most widespread invasive species in the world.” Brought along as a food source by colonists the world over, many of them either escaped captivity, or were allowed to go, and of course, they eat like pigs, and are quite a problem in many areas of the world. The bureaucratic hassles he encounters in trying to hunt pigs near his Virginia home are interesting, and this theme is carried over into other adventures Landers takes in the book. The insinuation is that if we’re to really take on these invaders, we will have to loosen the rules and allow hunters to do their job. Interestingly, Landers encounters nine-banded armadillos in this same area, and talks about their origin in the wild from a private zoo in Florida in 1924. 95% of the predation of sea turtle eggs in Florida is by this cute little critter. The taste – well, according to Landers, “it’s like a cross between chicken and pork.” As for the pigs, Landers says, “as food, wild pigs are superb.”

Lion Fish: the lionfish has it all – flavor, texture, environmental responsibility, and a dash of romance.

Lionfish are next. These poisonous-spined, hardy, aptly-named sea creatures have few predators, and are really tough to hunt (you have to spear them!). Landers does get some, but almost drowns in the process. Lionfish got into the wild by being blown away from a Florida home by Hurricane Andrew. Landers goes to Eleuthera in the Bahamas to find them, and has a great time. Cooked with a little olive oil and lemon pepper, these babies tasted good. “The lionfish has it all: flavor, texture, environmental responsibility, and a dash of romance,” says the author. I’ve got to get some!!!

On to Louisiana and nutria – beaver-like rodents that are a big problem there. After a maze of problems with the bureaucrats and difficult hunting conditions, Landers and friends bag a few nutria, cook them up with some Cajun spices, and voila, “it was indistinguishable from chicken.”

I’ll leave you with a large and small animal from the book’s menu – the giant Canada goose, and the Chinese mystery snail. Canada geese are a problem in the Pacific Northwest as well as the east coast, where Landers was hunting them. They have stopped migrating, and do a number on the grass of lawns, parkland and open areas by water. In Seattle, where I used to live, they were at least talking about gassing them in parks to get rid of them. Well, contrary to popular belief, according to Landers, Canada goose meat is delicious, when prepared correctly, and could be a great way to keep their numbers in check in cities and elsewhere. And there’s a bonus to hunting geese – their down is excellent for pillows and parkas!

The book ends with a chapter on Chinese mystery snails. These little critters were introduced into the wild as forage for flathead catfish, a non-native also, who decided they didn’t like the snails. These Asian invaders outperform the native snails and are wiping them out in their native habitats across America. “They remind me a lot of slightly rubbery New England-style fried clams or of fake scallops. These snails aren’t going to be 4-star cuisine, but after being tenderized, fried, and served with tartar sauce, they’re quite good,” is Landers’ review of the taste. Snails and chips!

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for some of the invasive species discussed in Eating Aliens. The book has more, and it’s all part of the growing invasivore movement. If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!

By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.

One reply on “Eating Aliens”

That is one way to deal with invasive specie and a good one. I’ve read of a similar problem with carp in Australia. The solution they choose is novel. The carp were so plentiful that they were able to be the beginning of a fertilizer industry. The carp were simply turned into nutrients for the soil by their capture and rendering. A perfectly green solution to a noisome troublesome problem.

It is obvious that there must have been a lot of carp for this to be worthwhile commercially.

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