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Emergence of Cicadas Inspires ‘Cicada-Licious’ Meat Alternatives

Photo of Michael Raupp by Tom Pelton.JPG

Michael Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, is on his knees in the back yard of a house in Howard County.

He’s examining thousands of red-eyed cicadas that are emerging from holes in the ground after 17 years. They’re molting from their shells and climbing up every bush, stem, and tree in sight.

Suddenly, he picks a pale, malformed little cicada out of the grass, and eyes it hungrily.

“I eat cicadas as a delicacy,” Raupp said.

Following his lead, I also pick up a cicada. “How about this one here?” I ask.

“Yea, that one looks good,” Raupp said. “Ready? One, two three, down the hatch!” Then he chews the insect. “To me, the texture is very buttery,” he said. “They’re soft, now, because they are soft-shelled cicadas. They have not hardened yet. It’s got a nutty flavor. I think that might come from the tannins of the trees they’ve fed on for 17 years.”

The emergence of the 17-year cicadas – the so-called Brood X, an underground army of trillions that has not seen light of day since 2004 – was delayed in the Baltimore area this spring, because of cooler than normal soil temperatures.

But now that it IS warming, they’re showing up in waves. Over the next two weeks, they’ll be amping up their loud mating calls – and inspiring a mixture of awe and dread.

To Professor Raupp, and his wife, Paula Shrewsbury, also an entomologist, cicadas inspire joy. She wears golden cicada earrings to welcome them. And cicadas inspire fine dining.

Professor Shrewsbury offers chocolate cookies crowned with baked cicadas to a visitor to their home. And her husband boasts of a cookbook on his website – titled “Cicada-Licious,” by a former student of his, Jenna Jadin. The book features recipes for everything from Shanghai Cicadas, boiled with rice wine, anise and garlic; to Cicada Rhubarb pie, baked with 4 cups chopped rhubarb and one cup of fresh-washed cicadas.

“They’re highly nutritious, certainly as nutritious as a steak or pork or chicken,” Raupp said. “Perhaps this occasion to witness cicadas, experience them in many different ways, which might include snacking on a cicada, might be an introduction to some people of considering insect protein as an alternative protein source.”

He argued that said that eating insects – like crickets or cicadas – is better for the environment than eating cows or hogs, because they create less greenhouse gas pollution from their methane, and because people eat 100 percent of the protein in their bodies. So there’s zero waste.

But, of course, bugs aren’t everyone’s first choice for brunch. The cicada I ate with him tasted bitter, to be honest, and its blood red eyes made it look a bit like a hung-over, slow-moving, ground shrimp.

I asked Professor Shrewsbury why cicadas are so sluggish when they emerge from their holes. They’re ridiculously easy to catch – and they can’t bite or sting or do anything it seems but sing their songs and mate with each other.

“Why are cicadas so slow? Yeah, they are,” Shrewsbury said. “They are kind of clumsy fliers. That’s why people are a little bit afraid of them, because they fly and they land on you. Well, they’re just looking for a tree. But they are clumsy fliers, and they bump into you and then they try to get back up into a tree. Their defense is predator satiation. That’s their major defense. They come out at the same time, synchronously, in huge numbers, so that every predator can eat their bellies full, and there will still be enough cicadas left to keep their numbers going in the future.”

After a brief population explosion through mid-June, the cicadas will lay their eggs on tree branches and then suddenly all die off. Their bodies will fall like leaves everywhere, fertilizing our gardens and yards and forests. They will complete the circle, becoming food to the trees that they have been quietly feeding off, underground, for 17 years.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.