Ever since the summer of 2004, I've been hungry for bugs. That's when Cicada Brood X made its last 17-year appearance, and when a Google search turned up an all-cicada cookbook from West Virginia, with dozens of recipes by women named Bea and Mabel. I was at once revolted and compelled. My wife was just revolted.
Nearly a decade on, and that book has vanished from the Internet, as unlikely to resurface now as Brood X. (Maybe in 2021?) But it was real, I swear, and it was my first proof that I was not the only adventuresome eater yearning to invite this occasional entomological guest to dinner.
The Ancient Greeks, for example, were enthusiastic eaters of cicadas for our western example. Forget phyllo, Aristotle wrote, "The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs."
Another great civilization loves cicadas, too: ours. From West Virginia, where that cookbook touted the pleasures to be had from this "shrimp of the dirt," to Maryland, where in this cookbook cicadas get the star treatment normally reserved for blue crab, and on down South, the East Coast has lavished attention on this ultimate seasonal delicacy, whose season comes but once every 17 years or so.
Which is why I longed to know what all the buzz was about. I grew up in Tidewater Virginia, and I recall eating some unusual stuff--pimento cheese, squirrel, and pickled okra pop to mind. But cicadas?
Turns out for all the lore about Southern cicada-eating traditions, living witnesses to such meals are as much myth as anything the Greeks ever cooked up. No one I knew had ever eaten them.
Not to be deterred, I decided to get to the meat of the matter, and to do it in high style. To mark the return of Brood II, I corralled some well-regarded chefs from my adopted hometown of Richmond, VA, to legitimize the endeavor:
* Jason Alley, owner of Comfort and Pasture, two of Richmond's most popular and celebrated restaurants, and a devoted practitioner of haute Southern cuisine
Will Wienckowski, head chef at the vegan restaurant Ipanema, but a carnivore (and aspiring entovore) himself
John Seymore rules the kitchen at Lunch., but spent nearly 12 years at Richmond staple--and soggy journalist's watering hole--Joe's Inn, which built its reputation on baked spaghetti dishes
Now I just had to find the pests. As it turns out, the hardest thing about catching a biblical plague is finding a biblical plague to catch.
For all the big talk of Brood II swarming the central mid-Atlantic, drowning out all sunlight as they ascend from their 17-year burrows in a great throbbing drone, the little buggers were downright coy. Owing partly to a wet, chilly spring, our cicada swarm was fashionably late.
Within hours of their first emergence in late April, cicadas gained near-equal social media status to kittens. With the Internet awash in reports of pulsing hordes to the west and north of Richmond, it seemed safe to assume I'd simply scrape the nearest deck chair or parked car's hood into a freezer bag and ferrying dinner off to my waiting chefs.
But two weeks in, and after wasting gallons of gas on central Virginia's back roads tracking eyewitness reports, I decided the thrill of the hunt was a buzzkill. Enter a willing Facebook friend who tends to wake early enough to collect the most tender cicadas for me.
He contacted me on a Monday and we arranged for a pickup the following day. His yard, he assured me, was full of them every morning. And his trees were packed by midday. Sure enough, I arrived the following day around 9 a.m. to see his bugs taking to the trees, where they joined the incessant hum of the swarm. The ground, which at dawn's early light, apparently had looked like a crawling carpet of newly emerged nymph cicadas, was bare. But in his fridge in two large freezer bags, my friend had gathered nearly 100 bugs, plucking them before their carapaces dried and while their wings were still too dewy to fly.
(For the record, my source assured me his cicadas were organic. He uses no lawn chemicals, which means my lunch hadn't marinated for 17 years in an Ortho brine. Good to know.)
For all you interested in trying this at home, the early bird gets the bug. Hit the snooze button and your prey's wings dry enough to take to the trees, making catching them not worth the energy spent climbing and running after them. Most important, it's the newly emerged cicadas that make the best, most tender eating--especially if you snag them while they're still a milky-white color.
They also freeze very well. While two of my chefs worked with with fresh cicadas, Alley's efforts were delayed by a week. There was no noticeable difference in taste or texture. They all tasted, as Alley succinctly put it, "like bugs."
And if ever a bug deserved our culinary attention, it's the cicada--succulent inside a tender-but-firm carapace that chews easily. Revealing delicate flavors if properly seasoned (i.e., just add salt), they recall the taste and texture of soft-shell crab, but with subtle overtones of boiled peanuts, the kind only a backroads gas station can really do right.
And when you hand over buckets of them to chefs like Alley, Wienckowski, and Seymore, they're a revelation.
Chef Jason Alley prepping the cicadas.
(Credit: Ash Daniel)
Wienckowski's cicada and monkfish sausage was like nothing I'd ever had. Preparing first a thick remoulade of pureed monkfish, egg whites, and heavy cream, he gently folded in his cicadas, which he'd first blanched, and a bit of chopped basil.
Each rolled sausage was then again briefly immersed in boiling water and then fried until the outsides were a golden brown. The taste, once you got past the buggy main ingredient staring out of a sausage at odd angles, was delicate and briny, each bite punctuated by the delicate crunch and release of the bugs.
Wienckowski's Baja-style cicada tacos--the bugs lightly breaded in cornstarch and fried--earned fair marks as well. They looked like bugs in mime makeup nestled in beds of cilantro, tomatoes, and bok choy, but the eating was good, with cicadas serving as a fitting stand in for whitefish.
Finally, chef Seymore's cicadas and traditional Southern-style grits were a natural pairing. After all, if cicadas the shrimp of the dirt, they should stand in just fine for their pink cousins atop. And again cicadas measured up to the challenge, although Seymore did go light on the salt. Like shrimp, cicadas depend for their flavor on seasoning. That said, the dish was still amazing, and it matched up to any shrimp-and-grits meal I've eaten. I highly recommend it.
You'll likely have to make it yourself, though: The chefs didn't think it likely they'd be putting them on the menu anytime soon.
"Really I don't know what the legality of selling them in restaurants would be," Wienckowski said, guessing the health department's reaction would be to deploy the regulatory bug zapper.
Still, Lunch. owner Rick Lyons chewed over cicadas' wider appeal. "I could definitely see them as a bar snack somewhere," he said. "Now, if we could figure out how to wrap them in bacon..."
30-40 cicadas (gathered as they emerge from the ground, remove heads, legs and wings)
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 Tbsp. Blackened Seasoning (recipe follows)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. butter
Charleston Cheese Grits (recipe follows)
In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups water to boil. Add cicadas and boil 4-5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Grill peppers and onions until al dente, season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Heat saute pan until hot. Add olive oil, then cicadas. Saute 1-2 minutes. Add Blackened Seasoning, onions and peppers. Saute 1-2 minutes more. Finish with butter.
Serve over Charleston Cheese Grits.
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking or old-fashioned grits
1 tsp. salt plus more to taste
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
6 Tbsp. butter
Fresh ground black pepper
In large, heavy saucepan, bring 6 cups water to a boil. Add grits and 1 tsp. salt, stir to combine. When grits thicken, add milk, cream and butter then return to boil. Reduce to simmer, cover and cook 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until grits are tender, smooth and creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
1 1/2 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. onion powder
1 Tbsp. thyme
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
Mix ingredients thoroughly.
Note: This recipe has not been tested by the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen.