Eat Invasive was an event I helped produce to highlight a novel approach to solving the difficult challenge of invasive species. This event was inspired by a series I created with photographer Christopher Testani and stylist Michelle Gatton, and was featured in Quartz. The video we produced features footage from the night - an incredible tasting opportunity with 5 of Cincinnati's most innovate chefs, who all developed custom dishes based on the concept.
Invasive species cause billions of dollars of environmental damages and business losses in the United States every year. Without natural predators or competitors to keep the non-native species in check, a stray barnacle on a ship hull or a handful of seeds or spores can grow into a major problem. But what if we could eat away our invasive species problems?
The concept of invasivorism promotes combatting the negative effects of non-native animals and plants by eating them. Many chefs have already taken on the challenge of transforming unwelcome species into delicacies, but the problem, it turns out, is getting them into the kitchen in the first place.
Recently, creative firm LPK invited humans to reclaim their positions at the top of the food chain at an #eatinvasive dinner in the studios of People’s Liberty, an experimental grantmaking organization. Bouquets of roses crowned with animal sculls topped the tables, and even the wine was made from invasive varietals of grapes. In an airy loft overlooking Cincinnati’s Findlay Market, partygoers took bites and sips of a dozen invasive species.
Chef Jose Salazar presented a delectable lionfish ceviche with celery, mango, avocado and plantain. The fish’s poisonous spines and lack of natural predators have made it a huge problem on the East Coast and in the Caribbean. Grocery store chain Publix offers lionfish through its Reel Variety program, but its distributor wasn’t able to deliver. LPK eventually found lionfish through an exotic meats distributor sources from spearfishers in Florida, and it arrived the morning of the event.
Chef Ryan Santos created a cold periwinkle and tomato broth, but the funky mollusk also proved hard to find. After striking out three times with wholesalers, the fourth source, an online farmer’s market for seafood called Sea to Table, delivered. “Our rep was able to inform us that periwinkles are best harvested during minus tides, which happen the weeks before and after a full moon or a new moon. Luckily there had been a full moon just a week prior to ordering,” Santos says.
And chef Patrick Hague created a pigeon en crepine with autumn olives and seeds —though pigeon wasn’t the invasive part of his dish. Instead of capturing pigeons downtown, he used California farm-raised squab. Autumn olives were used for erosion control and windbreakers for many years, but the shrubs displace natural flora. “I reached out to some folks who provide foraged mushrooms for us. General consensus was that they weren’t around, and that they had never seen them,” Hague says. But the next week the foragers brought back 4 quarts of berries. It just took knowing what to look for.
Matthew Barnes, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University and the founder of Invasivore.org, isn’t surprised that wholesalers aren’t embracing invasive species. “If they embraced the true invasivore spirit—eating to eradicate species—wholesalers would be entering an unsustainable market and aiming to put themselves out of business,” he says. “Not exactly a successful business strategy.”
Not to mention that invasivorism is really a form of locavorism, which makes large scale commercialization difficult. “Eating invasive may be a part of a national discussion, but it necessarily must be practiced close to home,” Barnes says. “What’s invasive in one part of the country may not be available in others—it may even be native. For this reason, wholesalers may not find large enough markets.”
So far, the success of invasivorism remains unproven. Barnes suggests it could even backfire. “Increased consumer demand for invasive species, combined with the reluctance of wholesalers to enter a market with the purpose of putting themselves out of business as previously mentioned, could backfire and promote cultivation or intentional spread of invasive species motivated by profit,” he says, pointing to historic examples. In colonial India, for example, a British bounty on cobras once drove the development of covert cobra breeding.
Not all edible invasive species are quite so hard to source. Chef Jeremy Lieb prepared wild boar terrine with Himalayan blackberry mostarda, sourcing the ingredients from two specialty companies he has long-standing relationships with: the wild boar from D’Artagnan and the Himalayan blackberry from Foods in Season. The berries were also used in a carmine cocktail called the Dandy Spitfire that Lieb’s mixologist made for the event: a smoked dandelion root (also invasive) gin with Himalayan blackberry preserves, lemon and St. Germain.
I have to admit the cocktail gave me courage to eat some of the dishes. The squirrel took one drink; the earthworm took two. Lionfish I’d eat sober any day.