Preparing for a taste of the 17-year cicada emergence

·9 min read
17-year Cicada Invasion

A cicada nymph sits on the ground, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Frederick, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Note: For those with an aversion to insects or entomophobia, note that this article focuses on the consumption of bugs across cultures and includes images of dishes with insects.

While the debate over whether pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping continues, entomophagists are adding a different ingredient into the mix.

Bugs have long been on the menu across the world, and with the emergence of trillions of Brood X cicadas beginning in some places and on the horizon in the coming days for others, there are even a few recipes and cookbooks floating around that feature these critters.

From Maryland cicadas, Southern cicada tartlets to banana cicada bread -- or simply roll them in seasoned flower and sauté them until golden brown -- there's something for almost anyone looking to try them. Yes, including as pizza toppings.

When soil temperatures reach roughly 64 degrees Fahrenheit at a depth of about 12 to 18 inches, cicadas across the eastern U.S. will emerge from the ground for the first time since 2004. After spending 17 years underground, this serves as the time for them to begin laying eggs.

While the newly-emerged cicadas are edible before their shells harden and have been deemed safe to consume, experts have warned against eating the bugs that surface and feed in fertilized areas or areas that have been sprayed with pesticides. They've also recommended that people with shellfish allergies first consult a doctor if cicadas are on the menu. People allergic to crustaceans may also be allergic to edible insects, according to the Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy.

On more than one occasion, cicadas have been referred to as "shrimp of the dirt," and when salted and boiled, Bon Appetit found they have "the taste and texture of soft-shelled crab, but with overtones of boiled peanuts."

An adult cicada sheds its nymphal skin on the bark on an oak tree, Tuesday, May 4, 2021, on the University of Maryland campus in College Park, Md. Trillions of cicadas are about to emerge from 15 states in the U.S. East. Scientists say Brood X is one of the biggest for these bugs which come out only once every 17 years. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

After finding a safe location to harvest cicadas, the cookbook CICADA-LICIOUS recommends catching newly-hatched cicadas during the early hours of the morning right after they emerge but before they have time to climb up trees and out of reach. A paper bag will be sufficient to catch the critters.

After bringing them into the kitchen, they should be boiled for 4 to 5 minutes -- a process called blanching -- which will make their insides solidify and get rid of any soil bacteria, according to the cookbook. Afterwards, you're set to cook them for a recipe or freeze them to prepare later.

One thing to note is that cicadas are not considered kosher or halal, though certain types of locust are considered kosher in the Torah. Locusts are also regarded as halal, as they were eaten during the time of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.

Since they don't feed on wheat, cicadas would also be considered gluten free, Gene Kritsky, a biologist and cicada expert at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, told National Geographic. They are also high in protein and low in fat and carbohydrates.

Cicadas account for 10% of the insects eaten around the world, so turning these bugs into a snack or even incorporating them into a meal is not too far-fetched an idea.

The consumption of bugs, or entomophagy, is not a new or even archaic practice, but something that has persisted throughout human evolution, Dr. Julie Lesnik, an associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, told AccuWeather in an interview. A biological anthropologist with a background in paleoanthropology, Lesnik has studied human evolution and wrote her dissertation around reconstructing the diet of people from 2 million years ago.

In studying the past and delving into the details of which insects our ancestors ate, Lesnik began to recognize a modern bias against insects as food and how that impacted future thinking around a more sustainable food source for a growing global population.

Lesnik has dubbed her sub-discipline of the human past, present and future of bug-based cuisine as entomophagy anthropology and has written a book on it, titled Edible Insects and Human Evolution.

Insects play a role in the diets of more than 2 billion people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with more than 1,900 insect species reportedly used as food.

For parts of the U.S., Europe and Canada, however, eating insects isn't too widespread, and there are a few reasons as to why.

According to Lesnik, disgust is a learned emotion, and one that is consistently associated with entomophagy in regions like Europe and parts of North America. One way to address it? Acknowledge your own negative perceptions of bugs and teach future generations that insects aren't gross but just tiny animals.

Dr. Julie Lesnik, an associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, spoke with AccuWeather on the history of humans and entomophagy. (Julie Lesnik)

Lesnik traced the learned disgust of insects from certain current food cultures down to a few factors, the first of which focused on availability by region.

"Insects are largely a tropical resource," Lesnik said, adding that due to the diversity of insect species in the tropics, insects would be one of the more reliable food sources. "You can build a food culture around them when they're available all year round."

Insects are more widely reliable for food in tropical climates, leading to the incorporation of them into diets. (Julie Lesnik)

Insects are consumed more in the tropics in comparison to temperate areas of the world, according to the FOA. This is in part due to insects in the tropics being larger, congregating in significant numbers and a large variety of edible insect species being available year-round.

With that said, a handful of regions in northern latitudes have a notable history with entomophagy. Eating insects in China dates back more than 3,000 years with over 178 insect species commonly eaten. Entomophagy can also be found in the history of Japan, Mexico and Indigenous groups across North America.

A woman sells deep-fried insects in the town of Skun, Kampong Cham province, northeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The town is well-known place for selling deep-fried tarantula, scorpion, cricket, and silkworm to travelers who stop by on their way to and from the country's northern and northeastern provinces. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A key difference lies in the fact that insect species are less diverse, and colder winters would have prevented people from using insects as a reliable food source.

The FAO notes that the domestication of a wide variety of plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent -- or the boomerang-shaped region spanning from the western fringe of modern-day Iran to Egypt to the southeastern region of Turkey -- and later Europe led to a boom in agriculture productivity and efficiency. It's possible that farming became a more reliable food source than looking to the areas' unreliable seasonality of insects.

While eating bugs wasn't unheard of in Europe specifically, and even Aristotle was documented to have enjoyed cicadas and Pliny the Elder was known to have preferred beetle larvae, availability was limited. Europe is home to a mere 2% of the world's edible insects, which hardly grow as large as their tropical counterparts, making them less ideal for gathering.

In this Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, photo, spaghetti with silkworm and cricket at Insects in the Backyard restaurant, in Bangkok, Thailand. Tucking into insects is nothing new in Thailand, where street vendors pushing carts of fried crickets and buttery silkworms have long fed locals and adventurous tourists alike. But bugs are now fine-dining at the Bangkok bistro aiming to revolutionize views of nature's least-loved creatures and what you can do with them. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

However, availability isn't Lesnik's only theory as to why people from places like Europe, the U.S. and Canada are hesitant to bite into some bugs.

Pouring over reports, letters and journals from the time of Columbus's voyages, Lesnik found mentions of Europeans encountering Indigenous people who ate insects. Columbus and others would then go on to use these narratives to attempt to justify his dehumanizing treatment of the Indigenous people.

While these events are a part of history, Lesnik added that negative sentiments around eating bugs, at least in the U.S., persist today.

"Because we are this colonial settlement, our culture is based on this idea of civilization, and so insects as food is very much this narrative of 'only uncivilized people would eat them,'" Lesnik said. "You see it in media and you don't realize where it came from until you really take the time to research it."

Over the past few years, insects have been slowly reintroduced back into diets across cultures that have previously opposed seeing bugs as a food source.

In this Nov. 30, 2016, photo, Stephen Swanson of Tomorrow's Harvest cricket farm in Williston, Vt., holds a bag of cricket protein powder he is now selling online. Farmers are raising the alternative livestock they claim is more ecologically sound than meat, but is sure to bug some people out: crickets. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

In the U.S., crickets that have stolen the spotlight with mealworms following as a second common food source. Since these two insects are also commonly farmed for pet food, we have the infrastructural knowledge that we can make the adjustments needed to meet human food regulations, Lesnik said.

"One of the great thing of insects as food is that they are an animal-based food, just like our traditionally raised livestock," Lesnik explained. "And if you look at what goes into farming animals, everything scales down by size."

The least-efficient meat source, Lesnik said, is beef, followed by pork and then chicken. And while these meats might be the first stop for protein, insects can easily be incorporated into someone's diet as a protein source.

For those looking to ease their way into a diet that incorporates insects, there are companies that create products such as cricket pasta and cricket flour. The latter has been described to have an almost nutty taste, and there are a few recipes available for making muffins, pastries and other meals with the flour.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting