In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
Cicadas can be found around the world. Aristotle described them, noting that they were best eaten just after they shed their covering on emerging from the ground. They were a favorite food of Native Americans.
In southern France, the concertos of les cigalles mark the beginning of summer. The people of Provene consider cicadas good luck so their images are immortalized on tableware and tablecloths, such as my beautiful sunflower-colored Provencal tablecloth. Cicada-decorated ceramics and cicada-shaped good luck charms are popular souvenirs.
North America hosts up to 150 different kinds of cicadas. All but a few of the species have multiple-year life cycles that generally range from 2-8 years. But since the cycles are not synchronized, some cicadas appear each year and are therefore called “annual” cicadas. In general, cicadas act as an unobtrusive backdrop to warm summer weather.
But then there are the ones we can’t help but notice. The periodical cicadas of North America, Magicicada sp., live most of their lives under the ground sucking on the roots of trees, and only burrow to the surface once every 13 or 17 years in the spring to mate. They emerge after the soil temperature reaches the mid 60s. The Brood X (X as in ten) outbreak that occurred in parts of fifteen states ranging from New York to Georgia to Illinois is the largest of the 17-year broods. America’s periodical cicadas occur only in eastern and central states that lie within the confines of the Eastern deciduous forest and east of the Great Plains.
In mid-May, 2004, the 17-year Brood X cicada emerged in the Eastern United States by the godzillions. To some people, the males’ mating songs were not so much concertos as cacophony. I found their songs soothing and peaceful and learned that to the trained ear each cicada species has a very distinctive song.
To celebrate the cicadas’ return, the Ritz Carlton in Washington, DC, welcomed its guests with a “cicada cocktail,” fashionably presented in a cocktail glass with a red-eyed bottom that eerily looked like the eye of a cicada.
But, alas, the cocktail contained no cicadas. Although it is very common practice in many cultures to eat insects, Americans are very squeamish about this practice. So, even though the sky and trees were swarming with cicadas, the high-end hotel chain required all ingredients served in its restaurants to be obtained from certified purveyors–and not scooped off the ground or plucked out of the sky.
The hotel also served its guests a cicada chocolate (imprinted with the shape of a cicada, not one dipped in chocolate) and a “cicada appetizer,” made with crawfish, is served in the bar. When asked, “Why crawfish?” the hotel’s public relations coordinator told me it’s because crawfish are related to cicadas. Okay, maybe distantly. Cicadas and crawfish are both arthropods and have exoskeletons and jointed appendages, but one is a crustacean; i.e., crawfish, and the other an insect; i.e., cicada. Both are crunchy, I guess?
The Real Thing
But on June 5th, I attended the United States Agricultural Department’s (USDA) annual field day in Beltsville, Maryland. In the midst of exhibits chronicling or heralding blueberry research, wetlands restoration and the benefits and uses of soy, was the Systematic Entomology Laboratory’s busy cicada booth serving real “cicada treats.”
The treats ranged from appetizers to dessert. The first cicada treat was a cicada fritter–a real cicada deep-fried in beer batter. The second was a nacho chip spread with refried beans and topped with a cicada that had been dipped in egg, dredged with flour and then pan fried in a little oil. The last treat was a bona fide cicada completely coated in chocolate.
Most of the people commented that they couldn’t even tell they were eating cicadas, as the cooked bodies seemed almost unnoticeable to the teeth. But there was the psychological fear of the unknown to be overcome–evidenced by the hesitation some people had before taking the first bite. However, despite the fear factor element, there was a continual flow of courageous volunteers lining up to take the cicada taste test. This truly amazed me considering the American Zeitgeist in relation to insects.
In light of the fact that in the animal research tent next door the powers-that-be had decided it was too risky to pass out samples to the public at a booth devoted to research on meat (the display was decorated with plastic steaks and pork chops), I guess the USDA deemed the consumption of cicadas to be relatively safe.
The USDA had no information on the nutritional contents of cicadas but if they are like their distant cousins prawns and shrimp, they will be rich in minerals and and vitamins.
Chef for the day was resident USDA entomologist Douglas “Dug” Miller, who provided some cicada-preparation tips. The cicada fritter and nachos were made with “soft-shell” cicadas that were gathered just after they emerged out of their nymph stage. These newly hatched cicadas are called tenerals. Unlike soft-shell crabs that take a while to turn “hard,” this process happens in only a couple of hours with cicadas, so Miller and his team collected their 1,000 cicadas early in the morning right after they had emerged from underground, cast off their old shell, and had not yet climbed out of reach. If you try to collect your own, look for them in the grasses and weeds early in the morning. Since these cicadas are soft enough to eat the whole thing, they need no prep.
However, for the chocolate desserts, Miller used regular hard-shelled cicadas–cicadas that been out of the ground for a few hours. The first step was quick freezing that killed the cicadas without chemicals or too much mental anguish to the kitchen staff. They can also be quickly blanched to kill them, a process that also solidifies the insides a bit and also kills any soil bacteria.
Next, Miller baked them in a 300ºF oven for 30-45 minutes. The clue as to whether they are done is when the thorax muscles are dry–which I think might take a bit of experience to figure out. Miller cautions they should be dry but should not have disappeared, which indicates they are overdone. Then Miller easily pulled off the wings and then removed the legs by gently rolling the cicadas between in his hands. Finally ready, the cicadas were dipped in melted semi-sweet chocolate, placed neatly in rows on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and put back in the freezer for a few minutes to set the chocolate.
I asked Miller whether he had a favorite cicada recipe and he recalled a unique cicada recipe he made seventeen years ago when the cicadas were in the nation’s capital region–Cicada Sprinkles. For this recipe, Miller sugar-coated hard-shelled cicadas, much like one would coat almonds with sugar, and then crushed and sprinkled them over the top of ice cream.
Dr. Michael Joseph Raupp, cicada specialist in University of Maryland’s entomology department, was interviewed by every conceivable kind of media about this year’s American outbreak–a rare occurrence for an entomologist. He reported that in Maryland, the outbreak was patchy. Some areas experienced the expected cacophony of cicadas, while others were eerily silent. Raupp and others attribute this to urbanization, the paving over or disruption of cicada habitats. But it is not likely that cicadas are in danger of becoming an endangered species.
If you missed the 2004 periodical cicada event, you will have to wait until Brood XIII emerges in 2007 in eastern Iowa, northern Illinois and Indiana, southern Michigan and Wisconsin. There are several broods of periodical cicadas in the United States, which come back to surface on a rotational basis, but none will emerge in 2005 and 2006. The United States also has some 13-year cicadas.
There are plenty of annual cicadas in the United States such as the green-and-black dog-day cicadas that emerge in the Cincinnati area every July and August, but in small numbers compared to periodical cicadas. There are also annual cicadas in Arkansas and Arizona. But, if you get itchy to hear a magical “magicicada” concerto, to see them massing in the trees and sidewalks, in which case you might actually have a better chance of collecting some to taste, you might consider engaging in some unique culinary tourism.
Southern Cicada Tartletts
This recipe is from Jenna Jadin, a graduate student at the University of Maryland and a member of a university club called the Cicadamaniacs. She thanks her mother Shirley for allowing her to “alter” this old family recipe. This is a very user-friendly recipe so feel free to substitute the flour and sugar of your choice. UM requested this recipe be published with a disclaimer–see below. Used by permission of Jenna Jadin.
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 2-3 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1 cup butter
- 3 eggs, well beaten
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 cup dry roasted cicadas, chopped
- 55 dry-roasted cicadas to garnish
To make the crust, mix well all the ingredients together and chill overnight.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together; add the melted butter, vanilla and dry-roasted cicadas. (Dry roast the cicadas as suggested by Miller in the article. For this recipe, Jenna suggests removing the wings, but the legs are optional.)
Put about 1 teaspoon crust dough in the bottom of each ungreased tart tin; push the dough around to cover the bottom and up the sides of the tin. Fill each tart 1/2 full with filling. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Immediately remove from the oven and garnish the center of each tartlet with a single dry-roasted cicada. Makes about 55.
Disclaimer: While many people worldwide eat cicadas, there is no guarantee that they are safe for every person to eat. Pesticide and other chemical accumulation is possible, but unless one decides to binge on cicadas, this should not be a concern. Additionally, while they do not contain any toxic substances, the nutritional content is unknown and we ask that you please take special caution if you have any other food allergies such as soy, nuts, or shellfish, or if you know of any contact allergies that you may have to other insects.
Cincinnati Cicada Stir-Fry
There are many websites dedicated to cicadas. One of my favorites is put together by Stein Carter from Clermont College in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Cincinnati is geographically positioned at the confluence of two mighty cicada broods.) He posts a host of interesting cicada recipes along with information about cicada myths and ancient uses. This recipe is one he suggests can be tailored to your specific wishes, vegetables available and culinary tastes–we suggest you use lard or palm oil for frying, for example. Of course, the cicadas are a must.
- 2-4 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1/2 cup onion, minced
- 1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh ginger root, finely chopped
- 1 cup sliced carrots
- 1 cup chopped cauliflower and/or broccoli
- 1/4 cup water chestnuts, sliced
- 1/2 cup bean sprouts
- 1/2 cup snow peas
- 1 cup blanched, teneral cicadas
- naturally fermented soy sauce
Heat oil (or lard) in a wok or deep-sided frying pan. Add ingredients in the order listed above. When the most recent addition is partially cooked, add the next group of ingredients. Add soy sauce to taste. Serve over the rice of your choice.
- The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology has a wonderful Periodical Cicada Page that described all of the US broods and their emergence cycles; see http://www.ummz.lsa.umich.edu/magicicada/Periodical/Index.html
- You can find Jenna Jadin’s complete cookbook online at www.urhome.umd.edu/newsdesk/pdf/cicadarecipes.PDF
- Cicada Central, see http://collections2.eeb.uconn.edu/collections/cicadacentral/index.html
- To see Stein Carter’s information periodical cicada info, cruise over to http://biology.clc.uc.edu/steincarter/cicadas.htm
- To order cicada outbreak memorabilia see: http://www.cafeshops.com/cicadamaniacs
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2004.