From rabbits to gray squirrels, rats to jellyfish, the world is overrun with invasive species that can wreak serious havoc. What to do with them all, though? How do we stem the influx?
One way, according to both scientists and chefs, is to start eating them. But while something like the gray squirrel may be kind of palatable—especially if it's deep-fried, Southern-style—making a plate of earthworms or jellyfish appetizing might be a hard sell. Raw mollusk is one thing, but a mound of wobbly ectoplasm you're used to poking and prodding on the beach is quite another.
Still, a group of New Yorkers—food stylist Michelle Gatton, photographer Christopher Testani, and art director Mason Adams—have managed with their project, Invasive Species: Envisioning the Future of Food in America, to not make just jellyfish and gray squirrel look delicious, but periwinkles (a type of snail), earthworms, lionfish, nutria (swamp rat), and Canadian goose, too.
Adams says one of the main drives behind the project was to explore the idea of "remnants and discards—what are the things that will be left over, the things that we'll eat when ecosystems have been so disrupted? Invasive species are a serious issue on so many levels, especially since in every case the invaders are a direct result of human actions."
Was one of the main goals, too, to question what people would actually enjoy eating if they stepped outside of their conditioning about what's gross and what's not? "Of course," says Gatton. "I think that's the biggest objective here—how can we recondition ourselves or normalize a food that causes a purely psychological reaction? Those are definitely hurdles to get over, especially when these things are so deeply-buried. Even something as simple as a name change, from Patagonian Toothfish to Chilean Sea Bass, can make a difference in appetite appeal."
Are all the creations in this project genuinely edible, though? "Yes," says Gatton. "Jellyfish is a common food item in China. I first tried it in Chinatown in Queens and it can be picked up easy in the markets. There's not much taste, though—it's more about the texture." Adams says it was paramount that everything in the project was edible. "This isn't just a concept," he says. "It's about putting it into action. There is a lot of writing around this idea of foraging invasive species, which all sounds nice, but the pictures make it real."
Did they even try the earthworms? Aren't you supposed to run them through grain first? "Yeah, I didn't have time to run the worms through cornmeal to clean them out," says Gatton, "so unfortunately we didn't eat the tarts. But I have tried other insects and would eat earthworms without much thought."
Finally, does making work like this make you reconsider your eating habits? "Ironically, I live with a vegan," says Gatton. "So most meals at home are clean and ital. But there are plenty of plants that are also invasive—some incorporated into the recipes—so we are eating more purslane and wakame. Testani is 'a big fan of game meats,' and a 'fairly adventurous eater in general,' but some of the smaller, more delicate things, like jellyfish, I might leave to the restaurant menus." Adams says he'd "absolutely use these kind of ingredients or order them at a restaurant."
While it's probably not wise to head down to your closest beach and start picking up jellyfish to eat, nor is it safe to eat things like squirrel in an urban environment—they may have eaten something like rat poison by mistake—it's vital we begin looking outside our cow-chicken-pig-lamb meat remit at some point. Hopefully this project, and more like it, will make people realize that it's only little psychological niggle holding us back. I was a bit wobbly trying squirrel for the first time, but was soon still. It was so sweet, so nutty, it reminded me of Nutella.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Chinatown to try and find myself a jellyfish.