Two words that don’t look tempting on a menu? “Swamp” and “rat.”
At least that’s the dark-humored consensus among a literal boatload of chefs cruising along a prehistoric-looking Louisiana swamp on a sweltering morning before the COVID-19 pandemic began, when Southerners were still socializing, not social distancing.
The two dozen chefs in this open boat are here at the invitation of local scientists who need their help saving Louisiana’s threatened wetlands. The “swamp rat” in question is the invasive nutria, which is chewing up so much land the state has placed a six-dollar-a-tail bounty on the rodent.
Nutria hasn’t yet succeeded as a restaurant dish, but it turns out there’s a world of environmentally destructive, non-native plants and animals—from kudzu to feral hogs—that are increasingly gracing southern tables. The United States is home to more than 6,500 invasive species that can reproduce aggressively, out-compete and spread disease to local species, and destroy habitat, in addition to tens of thousands of non-native and “nuisance” species. Many of them, in the right chef’s hands, are quite tasty.
(National parks are being overrun by invasive species. Here’s how to help stop them.)
The South is hard-hit but hardly alone. There are annual “invasivore” cook-offs in Oregon, and invasive-crayfish boils around the Great Lakes. New England foodies recently teamed up with ecologists to create the Green Crab Cookbook, using recipes from Venice and Vietnam to entice people to dine “from problem to plate.” They even pivoted to a free program to distribute the invasive crab to stuck-at-home cooks, called Shuck at Home 2020.
The invasivore movement, while small, has some straightforward culinary and conservationist logic. Imagine a wild-foraging species such as boar that’s not just “grass-finished”—it has spent its whole life feasting on organic habitat. Toss in some “micro-local” and anti-waste “snout-to-hoof” chef-speak, and you have what proponents argue are serious starter ingredients for a radical kind of environmental stewardship.
And although the pandemic is hurting business, it’s hardly stopping it. In Austin’s Dai Due restaurant, for example, the holiday pickup menu currently includes smoked wild boar ham: “acorn-fattened feral hogs” that are “brined with star anise, bay, and brown sugar, then smoked over post oak.”
Many conservationists are thrilled with their chef collaborators, often stars in their communities. “Chefs here are our local celebrities,” says Louisiana native Jacques Hebert of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition. “Our culture revolves around eating. We love food, and we love talking about the next meal while we’re still having a meal.”
But it was only on a pre-COVID invasivore foodie road trip—from Atlanta to Austin—that I tasted the truth in his words.
Georgia: ‘If we fry it, they’ll try it’
Known as the “vine that ate the South,” kudzu can grow a foot a day and has been overtaking trees and entire buildings since it was first introduced to the U.S. at the Japanese Pavilion during the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia. But kudzu really went crazy in the South, where it was once heavily planted by farmers fearing a second Dust Bowl. It’s since been taking a suffocating hold on lampposts, trees, and Southerners’ imaginations.
The stuff of southern nightmares, however, has long intrigued chefs like Matt Marcus of the (currently closed) Watershed restaurant in Atlanta. When it comes to kudzu, he has pickled, dried, and fermented it, and used it to “finish” salads. He’s made a kudzu-gel topping for a green-tinted tart, a chiffonade of it to create a risotto, and a dish of leaves fried with pecans and brown butter. He jokes: “If we fry it, they’ll try it!”
On the day we meet him, he serves my son, Bennett, and me a light, flaky fish dusted with kudzu powder. “You can taste the chlorophyll in it; you can taste the green,” Marcus says. One of his suppliers clips it from the edges of organic farms, an invasive salad-fixing high in nutrients from organic soil–and one with zero overhead costs.
Alabama: This dinner is such a NUISANCE
On the highway, my son blasts the requisite “Sweet Home Alabama” as we cross the state line. We count swamps, and laugh as Alabama public radio hosts warn small- and largemouth bass to avoid a certain river because of a high school fishing competition. We aim to reach Daphne, Alabama, in time for dinner with Chris Sherrill, the chef behind Alabama’s NUISANCE Group—an acronym for the idea of raising awareness of plants and animals that are a “Nuisance, Underutilized, or Invasive, but Sustainable and Available through Noble Culinary Endeavors.”
His partner, Chandra Wright, a divorce lawyer turned environmentalist after the BP oil spill, laughs, recalling how they concocted that acronym. “We wrestled with the ‘E’ for a long time.” The two created the group in 2015 after Alabama’s head of marine resources—alarmed by an invasion of lionfish in Gulf waters—called up chef Sherrill and asked, “Can you figure out if they taste good?”
(Why is this dog-size lizard spreading throughout the southeastern U.S.?)
Turns out Sherrill can make anything taste good. The dinner is a sustainable smorgasbord: sausages from nuisance wild boar that he says is “probably closer to the pork that our great-grandparents grew up on than what we have these days,” underutilized beef belly, and an “extremely underutilized” fin cut of red snapper with kudzu pesto.
“Every chef in the Southeast could incorporate kudzu in a billion applications,” says Sherrill. “I sourced it off the road where I knew they hadn’t sprayed for pesticides, picked some off a telephone pole, put it in a food processor with olive and roasted acorns, lots of garlic, some sweet onions, and Parmesan cheese.”
We go around the table trying to describe what kudzu tastes like, from “nutty?” to “fresh?” But their friend Miriam wins: “Outdoorsy?”
New Orleans: ‘Smother ’em down’
Everything seems to be on the menu in Louisiana. One chef says that he—like many others—grew up being told to “go out and look under a log; that’s what’s for dinner.” But when it comes to tackling local invasives, it’s even better to go out and spear a lionfish.
“Poisonous means you wouldn’t be eating that right now.” Those are words of encouragement from spearfisherman and biologist Alex Fogg as we dive into a tempura-fried, Vietnamese-style caramel-glazed, and beautifully plated lionfish—but one also so outlandishly spiky it could double as a medieval weapon.
Fogg snaps off some of the fried spines and pops them in his mouth. Lionfish are apparently venomous—they have to inject you purposefully with venom to harm you—but not poisonous.
We’re at GW Fins, a buzzing, upscale restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter whose dry-humored co-owner and chef, Tenney Flynn, is often referred to as the fishmonger czar of the Gulf region. He’s alerted diners by Instagram that they’ve got lionfish this night. “There’s a novelty factor,” he admits.
Flynn started out trying to spear them himself—it’s considered good citizenship to take out lionfish whenever sighted—though he says he’s no expert: “I shoot small, cooperative fish that hold still.” But he’s a leader when it comes to getting others, like Fogg, to take real numbers of invasive lionfish out of Gulf waters. “Alex here can bend your ear about the science of ’em,” offers Flynn as he realizes he needs to head back into the kitchen. “But unchecked, they’re gonna be a major, major problem.”
With virtually no predators, lionfish “fear nothing,” says Fogg. He began providing them to restaurants while he was researching them, calling it his side hustle to help him through grad school. It’s a hustle that’s going big time as more people recognize the threat of lionfish—he has just run the largest-ever “lionfish derby” out of Destin, Florida, netting some 19,000 fish that were stressing already struggling coral reefs.
(Here’s how these threatened animals can bounce back.)
“There’s people who would never in a million years consider taking the life of a wild animal,” says Fogg. “But lionfish are something that those folks can get behind, because they’re helping the environment.” There was a vegan woman at the derby, he recalls, who told him “the only thing she would eat that’s not a plant is lionfish—because of the cause.”
We order a raw lionfish crudo with Fresno chili, kaffir lime, taro chips, and mint. It has that beautiful effect sashimi has—as if we’re eating some ethereal combination of air and water.
Another night I head to a mural-painted venue in the shadow of an underpass, called Kermit’s Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge. It’s the spot to find Kermit Ruffins himself, a trumpeter and singer who conjures up Louis Armstrong but is also beloved for his barbecue, including—about twice a year—nutria “in a lot of beer or wine and of course with the trinity”—what chefs call the holy alliance of celery, onions, and bell pepper. “I always give it away,” he says, “never sell it.”
It’s certainly hard for invasives to compete with classics such as étouffées and beignets. “But people became more adventurous because of Anthony Bourdain,” says chef Nathan Richard at Cavan, his restaurant in a decrepitly hip mansion in New Orleans’ Garden District.
His advice for home cooks working with nutria? Just “kinda smother ’em down.” He’s won invasive cookoffs sponsored by local ecology groups for his tacos made of Asian carp, a fish that’s wreaking havoc in the Mississippi River.
“We have one on cure right now,” Richard says, for a bottarga, or Italian salted fish roe. But he says that if I really want to learn about carp, I have to go to Baton Rouge to talk to a chef there: “He’s the carp man.”
As the music plays and bartenders shake up cocktails, our waitress, Emilie, chimes in to say she overheard Richard saying nutria is best smothered in lots of fat. “I had a pet nutria growing up,” she says. “His name was Tim. When I heard y’all talking about ‘tender’ and ‘meat’ I was like, oh no!” We all put our heads in our hands in animal-loving agony as she tells us how she used to place Tim in her Barbie car and pull him with a string.
For real, I ask, one of those big pink Barbie cars?
“Oh no—lime green with pink accents.”
Baton Rouge: The ‘carp man’
If there is one chef I met who’s most obsessed with invasives, it’s Chef Philippe Parola, a rambunctious Frenchman in Baton Rouge who runs the “Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em” website, devoted to getting more of us to literally eat our environmental problems.
He was the European headwind behind Louisiana’s nutria-eating campaign in the 1990s—which failed even though nutria rivals beef for protein and was semantically disguised on menus under the French name ragondin.
“Such a waste of natural protein,” he says in his deep French accent and with even deeper and genuine sorrow.
(Here’s how southern chefs are giving back during the pandemic.)
But he’s hardly given up the effort to destigmatize other invasives. He’s laser-focused on turning Asian carp—which is so strong and bony that most chefs don’t have time to tackle it—into a comfort food: premade and frozen balls of carp that can be dropped into a deep fryer. He’s planning to target large venues, such as university cafeterias, to maximize the number of carp-eaters, fast. “We can’t wait; this had to be done yesterday. The science is too slow,” he says.
As boundlessly aspirational as he is, Parola harbors no illusions that his carp cakes will end America’s Asian carp invasion. But his belief in the almighty power of a killer recipe keeps him going. “Remember Paul Prudhomme with his blackened redfish?” he asks. Demand for that dish nearly led to the collapse of redfish in Louisiana in the 1980s. “With that one recipe that man nearly ended that fish! One chef! One recipe!”
Would that such an epicurean fate could befall the Asian carp, dreams Parola.
He’s most anxious to see if Bennett, age 15, will like the cakes, given that he’s putting much of his faith in eco-minded youth. He soon finds out that Bennett has already asked for seconds.
Texas: ‘Certified Boarganic’
We’re headed to Austin—the land of food trucks serving everything from gourmet barbecue to lavender lattes. Where, yes, all are trying to “keep Austin weird.” This will include, we discover, our own Airbnb host, a dog trainer who has taught her rescue potbelly pig—named Hamela Anderson—to moonwalk across the kitchen floor.
But we’ve traveled to understand a different sort of pig. We’ve been hearing about feral hog damage in every state we’ve visited, how they decimate wetlands, dig holes in levees, and ravage crops. But Texas is a leader when it comes to letting hunters, meatpackers, and chefs try to do something about them.
Worried state officials call them “outlaw quadrupeds,” chefs call them “wild boar.” And one chef in Austin is famous for plating the pest.
“A feral hog is a hog that doesn’t have a home,” says chef Jesse Griffiths. Once in the wild, he says, they transform: “Their hair will become coarser and their snout will elongate in order for them to dig in the ground more efficiently.”
We’re at his Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club. Here you can dine on bone broths and wild boar and axis deer lasagnas. Decorating the walls are the skulls of nilgai–antelope imported for game hunting from India in the 1930s and now competing with native wildlife and cattle for grasses.
(Take a behind-the-scenes look at Texas’s exotic game ranches.)
The restaurant is also home base for the New School of Traditional Cookery, which offers three-hour feral hog butchery classes and multiday hunts on ranches overrun with boar, nilgai, and axis deer—another originally imported, game ranch escapee causing problems.
“It’s coming onto the scene as invasive over the past two years,” says Griffiths, a burly fellow sporting a full, reddish beard and tattoos. He grew up fishing but describes himself as an “adult-onset” hunter, and he’s become an expert on hunting for invasives, fishing for trash fish (aka underutilized and unpopular fish), and making sure most of his ingredients are foraged.
“Eating invasives is a great thing to do right now,” says Griffiths, as we chat over wild boar tacos and feast on venison salami made of rich-tasting nilgai. My favorite is a tomato salad with a “venison machacado” dusting of dried axis deer. It’s both light and rich, with lime and salt but some oddly primal taste. Then there’s a wild boar confit in a paleo-friendly bone broth, drizzled with citrus.
Griffiths serves up some 300 to 400 boars a year. But the amount he is individually able to take out of the environment, he says, “is negligible.”
“My prime role is to have more dead hogs consumed. We’re killing a lot but not eating enough and they’re a resource.” He says many people poison them, a slow death with negative trickle-down effects through the environment; a swift hunt or short time in captivity is comparably more humane.
“And every feral hog you eat or serve is also one less animal that you pull out of an industrial agriculture situation,” adds Griffiths.
Overfull, I take a break from the invasive feast to explore the shelves at the front of his shop. Aside from the varied selection in the freezers, there are “Eat a Boar, Save the World” T-shirts and “Certified Boarganic” Wild Boar Man Soap made from boar fat.
Griffiths knows the odds are stacked against him when it comes to eradicating boar populations: “There was some ecologist who said it right—we’re not gonna barbecue our way out of this situation.”
But those tough odds don’t deter the chef, especially considering what he sees as the irresistible qualities of feral hogs.
“They’re incredibly destructive—and highly edible.”