Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eating Invasives

Earlier this year, I was invited to dine on a Canada goose and Maryland deer (pictured right) hunted, prepared and cooked by my hosts and long-time friends: Heather and Michael Havlik. Although the menu wasn't suited for a traditional vegetarian (which I am often mistaken for), it was ideal for an exercise in local, sustainable eating. Not to mention, the meat was so tender and full of flavor I nearly forgot I was eating animals.

Throughout our often holiday-therefore-dinner-party-centered relationship, the subject of what we eat, don't eat and why has often been debated. Michael Havlik, like most hunters, fishermen and outdoors men, is a conservationist at heart. His wife Heather will stalk over-populated deer and shuck local oysters with the best of 'em. Years ago, they opened my eyes to the dangers of non-native birds and helped shape my current respect and admiration for hunters - particularly those who set their sites on species that threaten the local eco-system. This year, they ignited my curiosity and taste for another level of eco-eating: dining on invasive species.

While the adorable waddle of Canada geese and smile-inducing relationships between mother and fawn prevent me from going forest-to-table alongside the Havliks, the newest "invasivore" movement in town, aimed at eradicating the snakehead fish, is one almost all of us can endorse without remorse.

Alewife Executive Chef and sustainable seafood steward, Chad Wells (pictured), has made it his mission to get these creatures out of the waterways and into the kitchens of environmentally conscious restaurants locally and nationwide. He recently told The Baltimore Sun, "We've proved time and again, the best way to destroy something is get humans involved."

The aggressive and predatory snakehead fish, well-known for their canine-like teeth, are thought to have entered U.S. waterways via aquarium owners and the live fish food market. The fish reproduce rapidly and, during all of their life stages, compete with native species for food. If left to their own devices, the snakeheads could drastically effect biodiversity and forever disrupt the ecological balance of native aquatic systems.

This Tuesday, August 23, 2011, Chef Chad Wells is teaming up with fellow chefs and conservationists Dave Newman of Brewer's Art, Joe Edwardsen of Joe Squared, and Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisinal Ales for an official snakehead dinner kicked off by a talk from Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries service.

I have the honor of an invitation to the dinner and am as excited about Steve Vilnit's talk as I am about being a part of  snakehead eradication. There has been some debate in the scientific community as to how and why we, as human beings, get to designate plant and animal species as invasive. In an article published in the Boston Globe in July, The Invasive Species War, Leon Neyfakh highlighted various movements and opinions both popular and scientific. After reading the article, Brian Knox, President of Sustainable Resource Management, Inc and co-snakehead-diner this coming Tuesday, pointed out the importance of distinguishing between non-native species and invasives.

"We have loads of non-native plants everywhere," Knox explained. "Any plant can become a problem if it spreads aggressively and pushes out diverse native vegetation replacing it with a monoculture desert. It is important to remember that ecosystems are dynamic and will change naturally over time (succession) but many invasives (mile-a-minute, kudzu, autumn olive, bittersweet, etc) spread at a speed only matched by developers on bulldozers."

Luckily, there isn't much debate about the environmental dangers of snakeheads however Chef Chad Wells doesn't intend to stop his crusade at the river bank. He is currently experimenting with invasive plants like Kudzu for an upcoming event with Baltimore's Food = Art.

Proof of a growing interest in invasive eating graces the pages of the September-October issue of Mental Floss magazine in The Joy of Cooking Invasive Speicies: Recipes for American Cannonball Jellyfish, Nutria, Kudzu, Lionfish and Canada Geese. Snakehead fish, and an accompanying recipe for it, is noticeably absent from the Mental Floss feature but Wells' new recipe is due to publish in an upcoming issue of Maryland Natural Resource Magazine and will most certainly be raved about on this blog after Tuesday's tasting.

For more information about invasive species in Maryland, check out the DNR's Invasive Speices Resource Center. For further reading on our relationships with and interest (or lack-thereof) in eating animals, I recommend Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat and Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.

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