In Oregon’s War Against Invasive Species, All Is Fare

PHILOMATH, Ore.—Oregon is famous for its food fetishists, but the state has taken gastronomy to a new level: recruiting “locavores” to prey on species environmentalists want to eradicate.

localvores feasting in invasive speciesAt a dinner here last month designed with the environmentally conscious foodie in mind, the menu was filled with a variety of invasive species that have hit the state. Sorel stems lent the crunch to sushi. Bullfrog flesh put meat into a white potato salad. Dandelion leaves replaced the spinach in an “invasives” spanakopita.

“Eating invasive species is quite the social scene nowadays,” says Sam Chan, a biologist at Oregon State University who specializes in invasive species.

This summer’s pièce de résistance was a cook-off by some of the Northwest’s top chefs, who were asked to prepare medallions of feral boar with two other invasive species—dandelion weeds and Himalayan blackberries—for a panel of food experts judging the offerings on the basis of taste, presentation and creativity. Dessert was a Japanese knotweed torte.

“It’s a whole lot of work, as it turns out, to make it edible,” Matt Bennett, of Albany, Ore.’s Sybaris Bistro, says of the Japanese plant.

About 200 guests donated up to $40 each to sample invasive plants, shellfish, birds and mammals, and swap recipes before a charity auction. The money raised—almost $12,000, according to the event’s organizers—is paltry compared with the $120 billion the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says “invasives” cost the country each year.

But it will at least help local officials make a dent in the situation. “It’s hard to underestimate the damage feral pigs can do to range and agricultural lands,” said Rick Boatner, invasive-species coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They can tear up crops and rangelands overnight.”

Chefs at the cook-off described their techniques for preparing bullfrog, wild boar and invasive plants. Chef Hamid Serdani favors adding spices from his native Algeria. Jason Biga, a Corvallis restaurateur, chops invasive flowers like Purslane into his kimchi. To add a dash of danger, Rick Browne, a celebrated barbecuer from Vancouver, Wash., uses honey from invasive Africanized bees.

Localvores Grazing The Back YardThere are some practical barriers to invasives cuisine, primarily public-health regulations that curb commerce in game meats. The feral pig slaughtered for this year’s cook-off had to be prepared in a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility, after first being checked for parasites.

But the feral-pig bratwurst served at the fundraiser’s buffet came from a Texas farm that raises wild boar under USDA inspection—and therein lies a contradiction for invasives’ culinary eradicators. While commercial production of feral swine is illegal in Oregon, it isn’t in California, where game ranches let boars breed for hunters to enjoy. Oregon officials estimate between 2,000 and 5,000 feral swine have migrated into Oregon in the past decade.

Under a 2009 Oregon law, landowners must contact state wildlife officials within 10 days of spotting feral swine on their land, and they have 60 days to submit a feral-swine removal plan to the department for approval. Since the law went into effect, 15 landowners have submitted removal plans, and 350 feral pigs have been euthanized or shot.

Invasives cuisine has caught on elsewhere. Recent recruits to the so-called Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em food movement include a group called the Chefs Collaborative in Massachusetts, which staged “trash” fish events in Boston and Chicago this year, charging $125 to let diners sample voracious invasives like the Asian carp, which the federal government now spends millions on each year to eradicate from the Great Lakes.

Bun Lai, a food sustainability chef, has offered an Invasive Sushi Menu at his Miya’s Sushi restaurant in New Haven, Conn., since 2005.

The New England native serves Asian sea squirt, an invader from the Philippines, also lionfish and European green crabs. Lemonade made from Japanese knotweed is on the menu, too.

“We have 100 acres of shell-fishing grounds we harvest ourselves. Half of our waiters and chefs are scuba divers who help collect the invasive species,” Mr. Lai says. “By collecting invasive seafood on shell-fishing beds, we are basically providing a free weeding service.”

In Oregon, meanwhile, quite the public-private partnership has bloomed. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife taught gourmet chefs in June to shoot crossbows and shotguns to encourage their greater interaction with the state’s many hunters. In July, a coastal environmental group staged the Invasive Clam Digging Workshop (and clambake) to raise foodies’ awareness of threats to Oregon’s ocean’s food chain.

Oregon’s Legislature has earmarked $5 million to battle the plants and fauna that threaten indigenous species. So far about $300,000 has been collected in an Invasive Species Emergency account, money generated by user fees thanks to a slew of regulations entering the books since 2009.

For example, sport fishermen and recreational boaters, including canoers and kayakers, pay $5 toward invasive-species eradication whenever they register their crafts or seek a boating permit. That helps battle invasive Asian zebra mussels, and ward off a new scourge from Eastern Europe, the quagga mussel. Sport boaters also are subject to $110 fines if dockside inspectors deem they haven’t sufficiently washed their craft before launching into Oregon waterways.

Mr. Chan, the OSU invasive-species specialist, says quagga pose a big threat. At the cook-off last month, he displayed an old sneaker scientists dropped into Nevada’s Lake Mead, where quagga are thriving. In just five months, some 3,000 of the tiny mussels established a colony on the shoe. Mr. Chan explains that quagga entering the Columbia River would not only wreak havoc with salmon and steelhead restoration, but they would cost the region’s many hydroelectric power plants up to $300 million annually to protect turbines, intake valves and fish hatcheries.

Quagga chowder doesn’t appear yet in The Joy of Cooking Invasives cookbook produced by the Institute for Applied Ecology, which plans to publish an expanded edition in October. Cajun-fried bullfrog legs do, as does a kudzu quiche and nutria eggrolls, made with the flesh of the invasive water rodent. At last summer’s invasives gala, the surprise hit was a “pulled” nutria entrée prepared by an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife ranger.

The institute publishes a top 100 list of invasive threats that have yet to become well-established, but easily could. Popcorn sparrows could become a popular food item, says Vern Holm of the Institute for Applied Ecology, as could Eurasian collared doves and snapping turtles.

“We say we should eat our way out of danger,” Mr. Holm says, calling the feral-pig encroachment the No. 1 priority for Oregon.

Corrections & Amplifications
Quagga mussels are thriving in Lake Mead. An earlier version of this article misspelled it as Lake Meade.

Write to Joel Millman at joel.millman@wsj.com

 

A version of this article appeared September 4, 2013, on page A4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: In Oregon’s War Against Invasive Species, All Is Fare.

Superfoods cover image

Play The Is It Healthy Game!

Read Nutrition News

Making Healthy Choices Easier Than You Think

You have Successfully Subscribed!