On our Hawaiian honeymoon, Alex and I had the pleasure of eating opah, a delicious fleshy fish (ours was prepared in a miso broth with some Asian vegetables). The waiter told us that opah was once a fish held in low regard; it was bycatch from tuna fishermen and always got thrown back. Over time, they kept catching so much opah, that they decided to sell it. Now fishermen intentionally catch it, and opah has since become something of an iconic Hawaiian fish.
The story of how this fish became a culinary star is, I think, one to which Jackson Landers, the unofficial father of the “invasivore” movement, might give a boyish nod of approval. Well, a nod of approval followed by a hunting anecdote or ecological history lesson that tops that, in true storytelling fashion.
And he’s got a lot of stories to tell. Last night I ventured out in the rain to my local independent bookstore to listen to Mr. Landers speak and read from his book, Eating Aliens. Years ago, he decided to do something about the hundreds of species that are threatened out of their natural habitats and toward extinction by the invasive species that compete for resources. But rather than join an environmental organization or research team, he hunts them and eats them. Not in a Bear Grylls survival kind of way (indeed, before the talk he admits to downing a burger from a nearby Dairy Queen), but in his one-man crusade to take action and educate others. Japanese carp, nutria, armadillo, iguanas, lionfish, kudzu…these are but a few of the invasives that have found their way to Landers’s dinner plate.
He is supremely intellectual, tying together ecology with history, economy, and cuisine, but he’s also practical and down-to-earth–he’s a hunter, remember. As he talks, you can almost visibly see the synapses in his brain tying together links, theories, personal accounts, and scientific evidence from these fields. It’s clear that Landers, whom my high school biology teacher might unironically call a science nerd, “gets it.” By “it,” I mean the way that we are connected to the other living beings on this planet and how every choice that is made (by humans) has consequences that ripple through entire ecosystems. I applaud him for living a life that allows him to combine two of his passions – hunting and caring for the environment (or perhaps the two are arguably a single passion) – in a way that educates others.
One thing that hadn’t really occurred to me? According to Landers, it won’t be long before species like armadillo (“possums on the half shell”), a native of Central and South America but invasive to the southwest U.S., may be seen here in central Virginia, thanks to global warming trends that are moving armadillos’ habitats farther and farther north. Aside from opening up a whole host of potential problems (pet armadillos?), the thing about invasive species is that they will continue to invade so long as they don’t have any threatening predators and they can find food to survive. It doesn’t matter that dozens of cartoon movies and children’s storybooks and even science textbooks associate certain creatures to a certain geographic area– our planet is a living, breathing, changing being.
I can’t say that I will be experimenting with invasive species in my kitchen anytime soon, and Mr. Landers assured me that if we are ever in a situation where the culinary world’s demands for invasive species for its menus are so high we face intentionally breeding these plants and animals, he will consider his work a success (and tackle that problem when we get there). But if, like me, you feel compelled to re-evaluate some of your food choices, educating yourself and others is probably one of the most practical things you can do. It might lead you to making simple changes in your kitchen. For instance, Landers suggested replacing your canned tuna for tuna salad with canned mackerel. Tuna is rare; mackerel is lower on the food chain, meaning it is in more abundance, and you won’t taste a difference in the flavor of your tuna salad. I don’t see a reason not to try it.
If invasive species do show up on the menus of locally-sourced restaurants around here, I suppose I’ll do my part to digest them into extinction. Just because they’re invasive doesn’t mean they’re not flavorful. And besides, if all goes well, they won’t be on the menu for long.
Will you eat “aliens?” Do tell.