Mark Bennett: Insect scientists, cooks anxious to share dietary, style values of cicadas | Information Columns


Say you’re a fan of cherries or sirloin steaks.

And then imagine that these delicious foods are only available for a few weeks, once every 17 years.

And when the rare moment comes, 46 truckloads will arrive in your neighborhood.

So the next two months will be for people who like to eat bugs, especially cicadas.

Brood X cicadas are making appearances across the Wabash Valley and beyond this month after sucking on tree roots underground for 17 years.

Entomologists say prime areas with lots of ancient oaks and maples, and fruit trees and shrubs, could be home to more than a million cicadas an acre.

They’ll be as loud as a 1970s heavy metal concert thanks to the sound choir male cicadas do with an organ in their stomach to attract women – essentially the same goal these musicians had in mind.

These flying insects will be short lived even as adults. They crawl out of holes in the Wabash Valley floor in early May, climb vertical surfaces (like trees), and shed their skin during the molting process, turning a creamy color. Within a few hours, they will turn black and their exoskeletons will become hard. They mate, with the females laying eggs in slits cut in tree branches. They die six weeks later.

Cicadas perpetuate this mysterious 17-year cycle that last appeared above ground in 2004 and before 1987, 1970, 1953, 1946 …

Wait, you’re still stuck in the phrase “people who like to eat bugs,” right?

Yeah that’s one thing. People in 150 countries intentionally consume insects like cicadas as a nutritious and tasty part of their diet.

“People actually eat them. It’s not just online prescriptions, ”said Elizabeth Barnes, an exotic forest pest educator at Purdue University who is at the forefront of the school’s cicada response.

According to Brooklyn Bugs – the “edible insect ambassadors” who work with universities like Purdue to research this practice, an estimated two billion Earth residents regularly eat 2,000 species of insects. The United States remains less convinced than other countries. Hence, Brooklyn Bugs is committed to “introducing edible insects and normalizing them in America as a sustainable source of protein, with wide uses found in your pantry, eaten as a snack and beautifully coated by chefs”.

Adventurous chefs in west-central Indiana and east Illinois – hotspots for major cicada emergencies – have plenty of cooking options, according to Purdue scientists and Brooklyn Bugs experts. “You can think of them almost like shellfish,” said Barnes. “Anything you can do with shellfish, you can do with cicadas.”

They can be grilled, sautéed, roasted, baked, dried, fried, deep-fried, grilled, boiled, and seasoned, then sprinkled on pasta, rice, stews, cookies, ice cream, and other dishes. “They’re great on pizza. It’s a very popular option. You can stir-fry them, ”Barnes said. “The list goes on.”

There is more.

Cicadas and other edible insects are excellent sources of protein, explained Andrea Liceaga, an associate professor of food science at Purdue University. One kilogram of insects contains as much protein as an equal amount of beef and all the essential amino acids the human body needs. And they’re more digestible than plant-based proteins, she added.

Insects require less water, land and food than other sources of protein. Naturally environmentally friendly sustainability.

“When you add all of these factors together, the benefits of insects outweigh other sources of protein,” Liceaga said.

They’re also delicious, she said. Liceaga tried barbecue cicada kabobs in Thailand.

The consumption of insects by humans dates back to ancient times. John the Baptist ate locusts and honey. The Greek philosopher Aristotle enthused: “The larva of the cicada becomes a nymph when it reaches its full size in the ground. then it tastes best, ”says National Geographic. Indians also hunted the cicada nymphs and fried them in lard, reports Smithsonian Magazine.

“If our ancestors ate them, it was because they knew something,” Liceaga said.

In terms of taste, edible insects have “tons of different profiles and textures,” said Joseph Yoon, executive director of Brooklyn Bugs and head chef at Yummy Eats in New York, in a phone interview Thursday. These textures “range from crispy to soft to mushy,” added Yoon.

Insect powder – made after roasting, drying, or freeze-drying – can be added to foods to increase their protein content. Crickets have a hearty taste. Ants provide a hint of citrus flavor. Superworms taste similar to the crunchy overflow cheese made from a grilled cheese sandwich, Yoon explained.

The emergence of Brood X (a trio of 17-year-old species of cicada) in 2021, which is expected to appear in 14 states, is Yoon’s first opportunity to experiment with dishes for these specific insects. Depending on COVID-19 precautions, he plans to search regions in New Jersey, New York and possibly Washington, DC to respectfully harvest cicadas at different stages of their cycle – nymphs, teneral (right after their first molt), Adults, pregnant women and eggs.

Yoon will work with entomologists from the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian, and the Staten Island Museum.

He will use these eggs to make “cicada caviar”.

“Because there is only great interest [the Brood X emergence]I wouldn’t be surprised if we made a hundred unique dishes with cicadas, ”said Yoon.

His search for cicadas begins this weekend. “The time is now,” said Yoon.

Back in Indiana and Illinois, home cooks brave enough to experiment with cicada recipes should take a few important precautions. The Purdue scientists remind these cooks:

• Anyone who suffers from a shellfish allergy should avoid eating cicadas or other insects.

• The most humane and easiest way to save cicadas before cooking is to freeze them.

• Only harvest live cicadas. There is no way of knowing what killed a dead cicada or how long it has been on the ground.

• Know if pesticides or chemicals have been used in the area where the leafhoppers are being harvested. If you’re not sure, don’t collect them here.

• If you feel unwell after eating, consult a doctor.

(Also, the experts suggest removing the cicadas’ arms and legs for smoother consumption.)

When these safety criteria are met, “they’re perfectly fine to eat,” said Elizabeth Barnes of Purdue.

Then comes the most important point – which wine goes well with cicadas?

“Combine it with a nice glass of red wine or a dry white wine. Everything goes better with wine, ”said Purdue’s Andrea Liceaga with a chuckle. “You might want a glass or two before you try them.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or