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Now on the Menu: Snakehead Cakes and Kudzu Salad

Earlier this month, a fisherman in southern Maryland hooked into something toothy and alien in a creek off the Potomac River. It was a record-breaking, 17 pound snakehead fish, native to Asia.

Where did this invasive species end up?

At the Alewife restaurant, at 21 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore.   Chef Chad Wells was the first person in Maryland to cook up a snakehead 13 years ago, when the predatory, fast-reproducing fish first appeared in the state.

Since then, Wells has championed the idea that the best way to fight invasive species is to eat them. 

In a quiet upstairs dining room of the restaurant, he explained the connection between being a chef and conservationist. On his menu are several exotic species.

 “We have snakehead.  We have the blue catfish.  And we have Ferrell hog,” Well said. “The reason I like to do it is I like to show that: A) There is nothing to be afraid of with them on the dinner plate.  They are only bad when they are in our ecosystem.   B) I think that they are a viable food option.  And I think that the commercial market is the best option we have to keep their populations in check.”

In the wild, snakeheads and blue catfish – a Midwestern species introduced to the Potomac River intentionally in the 1980s -- eat native species of fish, and so are a threat to the natural chain of life.  Wild hogs eat nesting birds, salamanders, frogs –you name it.

So, in Wells’ mind, it better to hunt and consume them before they consume the native flora and fauna.

But it is not only invasive animals on his menu.  He also cooks up exotic plants.

“I’ve used garlic mustard, I’ve used Kudzu,” he said.

Kudzu?  The vine that strangles whole farms down south?  I asked him how he makes that palatable.

 “I’ve actually cooked it down, and made a kind of cooked but cold salad,” Well said. “For some reason, I really like doing Asian things with it. And it’s been pleasant.”

Me: “Now, how does Kudzu taste?”

Wells:  “Arugula, ish? If that makes sense?” 

Me: “I think you mean arugaloid.”

Chad: “I guess that’s the right word.”

A waiter served me a plate of what looked like crab cake, but was actually not.

“This is something we are featuring with snakehead right now,” Well said. “I like to change up what I do with snakeheads.  This is a snakehead cake that is done kind of in a southwest style. This is my spin-off of a coddie -- which is a potato cake. This one – as opposed to being done with cod – is done with baked snakehead. And then I added some chipotle, some black beans, and some other southwestern flavors in there. Then I serve it with a corn and bacon salad and an avocado and dill puree.”

 “This is fantastic,” I said after tasting a bite.  “You know what? It’s actually better than crab cake.”

Chad:   “Well, that could be sacrilege in the state of Maryland.  But this is another way of saying, if you’re eating this, you are not eating a crab cake. And if you are not eating a crab cake, you are not eating a crab.”

So save the blue crabs, save the bay, eat a snakehead. 

Actually, that slogan would be a bit overstated – because blue crabs are not an endangered species.  But other species – such as Bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon – are severely overfished. So Wells keeps them off his menu.

 “I think it is extremely important that restaurants and the food industry as a whole keeps a close eye on conservation efforts,” Well said. “Because when it comes right down to it, our ecosystem and the life that is around us -- that is what pays the bills, and keeps food on the table. And if we destroy that, eventually our children aren’t going to have these things.”

In other words, a wisely chosen menu is the first step to a healthy planet.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.