Cicada: The Other, Other White Meat - The Washington Post

When buzzing hordes of 17-year cicadas rise from the earth next month, some people will marvel, some will cower, some will shrug their shoulders.

Jacques Tiziou, a Frenchman-turned-American who lives in a tree-fringed colonial in Northwest, will gather as many as he can, eating a few right away and saving the rest for later. Silver-bearded and gentle of disposition, he speaks in accented English that makes even bugs sound irresistible.

"You're going to grab one and put it in your mouth alive," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "You have to."

Tiziou offers a guest two ways of consuming a few of the cicadas he still has in his freezer from 1987, the year of their last emergence in the Washington area. Some he sautes, leaving them enrobed in parsley and butter. And some he presents plain, black things about as big as the top half of your pinky, wingless but still leggy, on a little white saucer.

Cicada-eating has a long history on this continent. The original inhabitants ate them. The current population is less enthralled, or maybe less hungry. Either way, some people are trying to revive human cicada consumption.

At Fahrenheit, a restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown, cicadas almost made the menu this year. "The soft-shelled cicada, it's done just like a soft-shelled crab," says executive chef Frank Belosic, describing how freshly molted cicadas should be rolled in flour, pan-fried in olive oil, and finished with a sauce of white wine, butter and shallots. Served as an appetizer, the dish would have cost diners $10 or so.

"Higher-ups," Belosic adds, crushed the idea, in order not "to scare people away."

Such is the hard slog of the enterprising American entomophage -- the eater of insects. In many parts of the world, people ingest bugs with regularity and even delight. In Western countries, insect-eating triggers the gag reflex.

Consider Kara Watkins, a waitress from Modesto, Calif., who consumed three live potato bugs on an April episode of NBC's "Fear Factor" as her co-contestants giggled convulsively.

"They were freaky-looking," she says of her six-legged snacks in an interview on the show's Web site. "They were huge. I didn't want them to bite me so I bit off their heads first and then popped in their bodies. They tasted like vomit."

"They're totally in the process of making things look yucky," sighs David George Gordon, a science writer in Port Townsend, Wash., and the author of "The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook." For him, insects are items of haute cuisine, and the cicadas about to emerge in the eastern United States should be considered a delicacy. "They have a nutty flavor," he says, "almost like a pistachio nut."

Gordon's cookbook offers a recipe for cicada-topped pizza. As an accompaniment, he suggests a crisp chardonnay or a semillon blanc. He also recommends you begin drinking as you cook, "to fortify yourself."

Although Americans are gradually increasing their intentional insect intake -- a few bug parts get into everything from apple butter to wheat flour -- the practice remains more a matter of novelty than nutrition. But when the billions of cicadas belonging to Brood X (the X stands for 10) leave their underground habitats next month, people who want to taste a bug may find their garage doors laden with opportunities.

The brood is one of 15 batches of periodical cicadas, a set of species unique to the eastern United States. The insects spend 13 or 17 years underground before emerging into a cacophonous adulthood that lasts only a few weeks and consists of mating, egg-laying and dying. Entomologists expect the cicadas to emerge in the District and about 15 states beginning in mid- to late May.

The males will create their trademark din, and cicadas of both sexes may startle and annoy the people in their midst, but the insects do not sting or bite. For many birds, mammals and reptiles, the cicadas will provide weeks of meals.

Experienced cicada-eaters advise would-be entomophages to be alert for the mass emergence that will begin one May evening, when nymphs -- as many as 1.5 million per acre -- will crawl out of the soil and head for a vertical surface, usually a tree.

There they will molt, taking about an hour to squeeze out of their dust-colored skins. Once they have broken free, it is your moment to strike: Pluck the creamy white adults off the trees. Gather as many as you desire for the culinary adventures ahead. Admire their red eyes and furled wings.

Do hurry. The exoskeletons of the newly molted adults will turn black within about 12 hours and harden over the next couple days. Once that happens, the cicadas remain eminently edible but they lose their soft-shell cachet. They're also easier to apprehend in their just-molted stage.

If you don't want to eat your cicadas right off the tree, cookbook author Gordon recommends placing your bounty in the freezer. "It's a dignified death; they drift off into a deep sleep and never feel any pain," he says.

With your cicada supply on ice, the options unfold.

Native Americans dry roasted them using fire-heated rocks. John Zyla, an amateur naturalist in Ridge, in southern St. Mary's County, suggests laying a few dozen on a cookie sheet and baking them in a 350-degree oven for five minutes.

Then serve with toothpicks and a selection of condiments for dipping, ranging from sweet to savory: chocolate sauce, honey, melted cheese, ketchup, mustard. Viola: cicada fondue.

The females, loaded with eggs, are more of a bite than the males, whose abdomens are largely hollow, in part because of the anatomical structures that allow them to make noise. Zyla likens the dry-roasted males to an "air-puffed Cheeto."

Some purists simply boil cicadas for a minute or two, in order to better appreciate their flavor. Other entomophages recommend stir-frying them; they will absorb the flavors of the rest of the dish. Some aficionados like their cicadas battered and deep-fried.

Grubco Inc., a Fairfield, Ohio, company that is one of the nation's leading suppliers of edible insects, reports that human consumption is rising. Company President Dale Cochran estimates that he sells 20,000 crickets, mealworms and wax worms every week to people who will eat the insects or serve them to others. A decade ago, he sold a quarter as many bugs for human consumption. "It goes in cycles," he says. "The 'Fear Factor' show has kind of increased demand, and at Halloween time we get quite a few people ordering them."

"The overall idea of eating insects is probably more widely accepted than it was 20 years ago in the U.S.," adds Tom Turpin, professor of entomology at Purdue University and founder of the Bug Bowl, an annual festival focused on insects that begins today in West Lafayette, Ind.

More than 30,000 people were expected to attend this year's two-day event, three times the number that showed up five years ago. Thousands of Bug Bowl-goers consume a stir-fried mealworm or a chocolate-dipped grasshopper.

Still, persuading people to eat a bug isn't easy. "We've all grown up to think of insects as basically the enemy," says Michael Schauff, a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Not so in Asia, where Thais munch on fried grasshoppers and Japanese eat the rice grasshopper known as hashi, a practice that curbs the need to use pesticides in the paddies. Africans adore locusts and many varieties of caterpillars. Many people in Central and South America consume ants, grasshoppers, stink beetles, and, well, the list is long.

Bug-eating enthusiasts suggest that Americans should include a few more insects in their diet. At a time when the safety of many sources of protein -- from beef to salmon -- is being called into question, insects offer an alternative. Shrimp and lobsters, part of the same biological phylum that includes bugs, are essentially sea insects. No one thinks twice about spreading toast with honey, known among wise-cracking entomologists as "bee vomit."

"If we broadened our palate," says Gordon, "we'd have a much better time of surviving in large numbers."

Chez Tiziou, the buffet awaits. "By itself, [a cicada] doesn't have much taste, you know," he says.

He's right. His delightful parsley-and-garlic butter certainly perks up the insect's gastronomic appeal. Served plain, cicadas have more crunch than flavor.

Once they're in the mouth, the unmistakable feeling is one of anticlimax. In the end, a cicada is just another creature available for the eating. And like anything else that's been frozen for 17 years, the plain ones taste like freezer.

Jacques Tiziou of Northwest likes to enjoy cicadas raw, or sauteed in butter and parsley.