After habitat loss and global warming, invasive species are probably the third leading cause of global extinctions. I didn't see a whole lot of people doing something about this, so I decided to use my skills as a hunter, teacher and writer to fight invasive species. I spent about 16 months traveling around the U.S. and the Caribbean hunting and fishing for invasive species in order to try eating them for a book entitled, Eating Aliens. When humans decide that something in the wild is good to eat we are pretty good at running through it unless legal limits are put in place. I hypothesized that encouraging people to eat these species could leverage human self-interest to help protect the native species and ecosystems at risk from invasive species.
My mother says that I was a picky eater as a kid. In retrospect, I must have been pretty picky as an adult, too. While working on Eating Aliens I ended up eating everything from armadillos to iguanas. It turns out that most of the world tastes pretty similar to chicken, beef, and pork. My whole idea of what sort of things I would consider eating has totally been changed by the work that went into the book. Along the way I found that some of these things are more practical than others as food for the masses, but nothing turned out to be downright inedible.
Our problems with invasive species are mostly problems with human behavior. As human beings we have a collective responsibility to fix the ecological problems that humans have created. Tough as it is to swallow, that means that someone has to be the reaper. For 16 months that someone was me. These are some of the photos that I took along the way (with a few taken by the Swedish filmmaker, Helenah Swedberg, who came along for a while to film me and ended up as my girlfriend). I haven't included anything too gory, so the squeamish are welcome.
Snakeheads, or the so-called 'frankenfish' aren't so strange when you meet one in person. This Asian native was brought to the U.S. for use as food and for the aquarium trade before being illegally dumped in the Potomac River in Maryland. A voracious ambush predator, it has sharp teeth that can rip larger prey in half. But once it's in the kitchen, it's just another fish. Snakeheads have a taste and texture nearly identical to swordfish. I served this one to a group of journalists who agreed that there is nothing scary about this fish after the first bite.
The black spiny-tail iguana might look like a miniature dinosaur, devour endangered species like scrub jay chicks and gopher tortoise hatchlings, and dig dangerous holes along foundation walls. But it has one thing in its favor -- it tastes like chicken (with a texture like crab). This Central American species was dumped on Gasparilla Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida by a pet-owner who grew tired of caring for them. It has recently made its way to the mainland and could eventually pose a threat to the rest of Florida.
After my first trip to Florida to hunt invasive lizards, I came back again to catch invasive fish with famed professional iguana hunter, George Cera (in the background). George and I drove around for a few days looking for any kind of water where we could throw nets for tilapia and other invasive fish to eat. Here, my net holds an armored catfish, native to the Amazon Basin. These probably became established via dumping of unwanted fish from home aquariums. The flesh was actually firmer and more flavorful than tilapia in a side-by-side taste test.
Fishing with nets in Florida comes with certain hazards not encountered in most of the U.S. We constantly had to pick up and move to a new spot in our pursuit of invasive tilapia on account of the alligators. This big eight footer grabbed the leash of my net, gave it a good jerk, and then didn't want to let go. He knows that there might be a meal on the bottom end and there is definitely a meal at the top (me). As herbivores, tilapia don't often bite a baited hook and nets are the most practical way of catching them.
Invasive wild hogs aren't very appetizing to look at, but this bacon that I butchered from a big Texan sow certainly is. I've found that wild pork tends to be leaner than their farmed relatives but the flavor is often superior. Iberian ham is prized for coming from pigs that are allowed to run and exercise and which have been finished on a diet of mostly acorns. Wild American pork hunted in the autumn is pretty much the same thing, only it's free and local. Feral pigs cause massive environmental destruction every year, transforming habitat by their constant rooting, as well as directly feeding on many endangered species.
Sure, nutria look like giant rats. But don't try to tell me that lobsters look any more appetizing than these guys do. This semi-aquatic South American rodent was brought to the U.S. to be farmed for its fur. When prices collapsed, they were released. Nutria are ubiquitous around much of the Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana. Their burrowing habit erodes riverbanks and levies and their feeding habits tend to devastate vegetation that native wildlife depend on. I bagged this one from the deck of an air boat while cruising around with French chef Philippe Parola and a bunch of Cajuns who have been eating nutria since they first showed up. The unusual thing about nutria is that not only does it taste like chicken but the texture is also identical. It was delicious cooked with Cajun spices and served over rice.
The giant Canada goose has been deliberately introduced far outside of its native range in the mid-west. I have spotted them as far away as a park in Munich, Germany. When the species is kept in captivity for a generation before being released it will have no idea where it is supposed to migrate to. This means that the birds will typically park themselves on the same pond or lake year-round, having a greater impact on the water quality than if they were only visiting for a few months. Goose meat is nothing like chicken. It is a red meat, like a finely-grained beef, only with a softer fat than beef. I took this one with a shotgun and then carved it up with chef<a href="http://www.theperennialplate.com/"> Daniel Klein of the Huffington Post's 'Perennial Plate' </a>and we ran it through a meat grinder to make goose burgers.
There is a myth among American fishermen that carp taste like mushy, rancid cardboard full of bones. I've eaten enough carp now that I can put that myth to rest. When butchered quickly after they are caught, invasive carp such as this silver carp that I ate in Missouri taste like any other firm, white fish. I doubt that most people could tell the difference between carp and cod in a blind taste test. Silver carp from Asia have come to dominate huge stretches of the Missouri River, comprising up to 95% of the biomass in some areas. Federal programs are struggling to erect barriers and study new means of controlling the species, but I think that stone age technology in the form of people dragging nets through the water is probably the best way to deal with the problem. Net the fish, sell them for food, problem solved.
The venomous lionfish was my first big taste surprise while working on <em>Eating Aliens</em>. I traveled to the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, to pursue these Pacific and Indian Ocean natives. The flavor turned out to be very clean, bright, and not fishy at all when eaten fresh. The texture reminded me of Chilean sea bass. The venom is located only in the spines which you see sticking out like the mane of a lion. The spines are easily removed when the fish are cleaned. Otherwise cooking at even a low temperature will neutralize the venom. Catfish spines contain a similar venom and we seem to deal with those in the kitchen easily enough.