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Asian carp, imported from China in 1973 to clean algae from Southern ponds, broke from their confines and infested the Mississippi River waterways. (Jim Weber / ZUMA Press / Corbis)

Making the Best of Invasive Species

Garlic mustard and Asian carp can wreak havoc on their ecosystems, but do they have a future on your dinner plate?

Disgupta argues that the carp has all the health benefits associated with eating fish and, since it eats low on the food chain, has few contaminants such as mercury that tend to be concentrated in the flesh of other fish species. He says he’s eaten Asian carp in various preparations and found it delicious. But even though this species of carp is prized as a tasty fish in China, Americans usually grimace at the idea of eating it.

“There’s a negative prejudice to the name,” Disgupta says. “People think they’re bottom feeders. They get them mixed up with suckers, which look similar but are from a different biological family.”

In Florida, George Cera has trained his fork on a different invasive creature: the spiny-tailed black iguana, which was imported as an exotic pet, then escaped and proliferated. Cera was hired by the town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island to hunt and kill the iguanas, which feast on endangered plants as well as the eggs of protected sea turtles, gopher tortoises and burrowing owls. “They grab and eat them like we’d eat a cherry tomato,” Cera says.

In two years, Cera bagged 12,000 iguanas, his conscience soothed as he found parts of protected species inside them. But it bothered him to kill an animal without eating it. Then, he met some Central and South American tourists who told him that iguanas are considered a delicacy back home, where they’re a native species. They gave Cera recipes. He tracked down more on his own and produced an iguana cookbook.

“I thought it would be a fun way to educate the public,” Cera says. “Now, people come and ask me where they can get some of this meat.”

Perhaps no one tackles the issue of eating invasives with as much gusto as Jackson Landers, author of The Locavore Hunter blog. Over the past year, he’s traveled the country hunting invasives and gathering material for his new book, Eating Aliens. Landers has hunted and eaten feral pigs in Georgia, green iguanas in the Florida Keys, pigeons in New York City, Canada geese in Virginia and European green crabs in Massachusetts, among others.

“As a systematic approach to invasives, eating them should be a major component,” Landers says. “After all, human beings have eaten other species to extinction.”

Not everyone agrees with this approach, however. Sarah Simons, executive director of the Global Invasive Species Programme, echoes the thoughts of some wildlife managers, saying, “There is currently no evidence whatsoever to demonstrate a reduction in population size, or effective management, of invasive species by consuming them. More often, it is quite the reverse which occurs—promoting the consumption of an invasive species can actually create a market, which in turn increases the spread or introduction of invasive species.”

The organizers of Cleveland’s Pestival are well aware of the fine and dangerous line between educating people about garlic mustard—including its edibility—and inadvertently inspiring them to cultivate it in their backyards. But there seemed to be little cause for worry at the event. Most of the preparations offered an array of flavors, and it was hard for the diners to isolate the particular taste of garlic mustard. Some of the chefs only shrugged when asked if they planned to make the wayward green a regular part of their menu.

The exception was Jonathon Sawyer, owner of the Greenhouse Tavern and named a Best New Chef of 2010 by Food and Wine magazine. Sawyer loves to forage the ring of parks around Cleveland and has been carrying garlic mustard back to use in his restaurant and home for five years. In the springtime, he likes to eat the leaves raw, comparing their taste and bite to arugula. As the plants get older, he blanches and eats them like mustard greens.

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