It may be difficult to eat our way out of the invasive species problem, but it can be satisfying to try.
Chefs and adventurous diners converged at Zenith Vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley near Salem Sunday as more than 200 people paid handsomely to nibble on course after course of invasive species like nutria, dandelion and carp.
The point of this affair was to highlight the range of edible invasive weeds, birds, fish and mammals around us. These invaders are costly to control. They crowd out native plants and animals and can change entire landscapes.
One slogan heard here, "If you can't beat 'em, eat ‘em."
‘A little chewy, but very tasty'
Chef Matt Bennett of Sybaris Bistro in Albany led off the gastronomic adventure with a piquillo pepper stuffed with invasive crayfish, dandelion green spanakopita and house-made wild boar sausage.
And those were just some of the appetizers. Still to come were buttermilk fried bullfrog legs, braised wild boar with bourbon blackberry glaze and Asian carp boulettes.
Diners Rosamaria and Greg Mann of Corvallis sampled deep-fried nutria. The rodent was trapped locally.
"The nutria was a little chewy, but it was very tasty,” Rosamaria said.
"Maybe a little more tender than rabbit though,” Greg added. “It was good. I enjoyed it."
But asked if she could see nutria ever becoming a popular cuisine, Rosamaria said, "They'd have to do some kind of heavy PR for the nutria. They're not really pretty looking, no.”
A culinary solution?
The title of this annual dinner is "Eradication by Mastication." But even the group putting on the gala said we can't get rid of the invaders by eating them.
"The problem is too big for that,” conceded Tom Kaye, executive director of the Institute for Applied Ecology. “And also, the parts of some of these things that we eat -- some of the plants -- say for example if we collect blackberries, that does not eradicate blackberries. You need to mow them or do more in order to get blackberries out."
One of the celebrity chefs on hand made an energetic case for mastication. Philippe Parola from Louisiana demonstrated for a rapt audience how to butcher a nutria and fillet an enormous carp.
Chef Philippe said harvest pressure could keep invaders like this in check.
"When I hear cooking the problem is not the solution, well I'm not saying it is the solution. But it can be a part of the solution,” he said. “If you give us a chance and work with us, I guarantee you we can make it a heck of a solution.”
The big three Parola would like to see on more than a few menus are: nutria, Asian carp and feral pigs. All three of these have gained a foothold in different parts of the Northwest.
Don’t sharpen your knives yet
But Wyatt Williams, invasive species specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, hopes they don't get too popular on dinner plates.
"If people start to get a taste for Asian carp, then perhaps it could be turned into a fishery, and maybe become popular, and people won't want them to be eradicated,” he said.
Meat inspection and public health rules present another hurdle when it comes to wild game in particular. If you or your favorite restaurant wanted to buy wild boar chops or nutria nuggets, good luck finding them. Several of the chefs at Sunday's invasive species dinner said the food safety system in the U.S. is not set up to handle wild-harvested meat.
According to the Idaho Invasive Species Council, Idaho is working to eradicate the only known population of feral hogs in the state in the Bruneau River Valley of Owyhee County.
Oregon officials estimate that as many as 5,000 wild pigs are roaming their state. Williams, who sits on his state's Invasive Species Council, said some probably migrated from California while others may have descended from escaped domestic swine.
Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife reports no known established populations in Washington, though individual feral pigs have been reported over the years.