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Billions of periodical cicadas have emerged over the past few weeks in more than a dozen states across the Southeast and Midwest.
A food bonanza for predators
The emergence of the “Great Southern Brood” of 13-year periodical cicadas has created a food bonanza for predators. Entomologist Chris Hartley of the Butterfly House in Chesterfield says cicadas don’t have any toxins, and they can’t bite or sting. Their only defense is in their numbers.
“Their strategy for surviving is to give the predators so much potential food that they can never finish them all off,” Hartley said. “That’s why they emerge all at once.”
Hartley says cicadas make a tasty meal for everything from birds to ants to lizards. Dogs love them. And, Hartley tells me, so do some people.
They’re just like shrimp
To test out that theory, we head inside to a Butterfly House classroom to cook some up.
“Cicadas just like all insects are very close relatives of crustaceans,” Hartley explained. “So there is essentially no difference between these guys and shrimp, or crabs, or anything like that.”
Hartley goes into another room for a minute, and comes back with little white ceramic bowl. In it are a couple dozen orangey-white blobs with bulging black eyes – cicadas he’s been storing in a freezer.
He tells me they’re adults. “The newly emerged adults, the ones that are still white. And they were caught before they had a chance to really harden up, so they’re a lot like soft shelled crabs, they’re still very soft.”
Cookin’ — cicada style
Hartley turns on a hot plate, and puts some vegetable oil — and about half a stick of butter — in a frying pan.
“All right, I have five cloves of garlic in here that we’re going to throw in to give it a nice flavor,” Hartley said.
He’s obviously done this before. “Well, I’ve done many different kinds of entomophagy classes over the years. Entomophagy. That means insect eating in Greek.”
Hartley says cicadas and other insects can be treated in just about any way you would treat shrimp. You can deep fry them, bake them, cook them with soy sauce in a stir fry, or…sauté them.
Hartley adds the garlic to the pan, to brown.
“And again we eat shrimp, crayfish, lobster, crab,” Hartley said. Whereas you know for people in other parts of the world, including Africa, Australia, South America, North America, and throughout Asia, eating insects has always been part of just what you do.”
Out comes the garlic, and in go the cicadas. They make a distinctive popping sound, in the pan.
“The reason they’re popping like that is that we’re using the whole body here, and actually amazingly enough the things like the wings which are just thin little sheets of exoskeleton, tend to swell up like balloons when they’re exposed to heat like that, and then you get the popping,” Hartley explained.
He dices up the garlic and adds it back to the pan of sautéing cicadas.
“And now our cicadas are definitely starting to crisp up, as I can tell as I poke them around there," Hartley said. “That’s good.”
A few more minutes, and the cicadas complete their transformation from soft and squishy to brown and crunchy.
An adventure in entomophagy
Hartley transfers his culinary concoction to a plate, tops it off with a little fresh parsley and lemon juice, and voila! Cicada scampi.
If I ignore all the little beady black eyes staring back up at me, it actually looks, well, pretty tasty. Still, I make Hartley take the first bite.
“Mmm. Nice, crisp. Nice flavor of butter and garlic. They’re wonderful,” he said.
Finally, I try one.
They’re actually really good.
Those crunchy, shrimp-like cicadas will probably die off in the St. Louis area in the next couple weeks. Hartley hopes that in the meantime, people will at least try to enjoy them — on the dinner plate, or otherwise.