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The New Yorker

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D.I.Y. Department December 10, 2012 Issue

Alien Entrées

By Elizabeth Kolbert

December 2, 2012

Joe Roman is a conservation biologist who, among other things, studies invasive species. Several years ago, while he was a doctoral candidate at Harvard, he spent a summer collecting green crabs along the coast of Maine. Green crabs (Carcinus maenas) are native to Europe but were introduced to North American waters in the eighteenth century. Voracious and prolific—females can release two hundred thousand eggs a year—they often out-compete native shore dwellers. They are listed as one of the world’s hundred “worst invasive alien species,” an honor they share with Asian long-horned beetles, the banana bunchy top virus, and black rats.

During the field season, Roman, a self-described foodie, began to think that, instead of just collecting green crabs to cut up for research, he should take a more active role in trying to control them. Thus was born the Web site Eat the Invaders, which encourages visitors to fight alien species “one bite at a time.” Roman advises gathering green crabs in the spring, when they’re molting and have soft shells. “With a sharp knife, remove the eyes,” the site instructs. Sauté the crabs in butter. Garnish with parsley and serve with French bread.

The other day, Roman was in the Berkshires to give a talk on invasive cuisine. He had teamed up with a chef named Bun Lai, whose restaurant—Miya’s Sushi, in New Haven—offers an “invasive species menu.” To give the locals a taste of their own back yards, Roman spent the afternoon digging up burdock on a weedy hillside. Burdock (Arctium lappa), an invader from Eurasia, is now ubiquitous in New England. It has large, arrow-shaped leaves and a long, starchy taproot, which the Japanese like to eat.

“For me, this is a way of educating people and also a chance to have a good meal,” Roman said as he turned over the rocky soil. He noted that foraging for wild foods has become so popular that some native plants, such as ramps, are being overharvested. With invasive species, this is not a concern: “The goal here isn’t sustainability.”

After the muddy roots had been washed, peeled, and boiled, Roman went to meet Lai, who had brought with him several large trays of sushi, as well as a crate filled with cooking equipment. Sixty or seventy aspiring invasivores filed into a lecture hall at Williams College. Roman talked about his research on green crabs, which revealed that they had been introduced to North America several different times, probably in ballast water. As Roman spoke, Lai braised the tapered burdock roots in an electric frying pan. He added a splash of soy sauce and some honey. The roots came out brown and glistening, as if coated with caramel.

Lai passed around the sushi. “You’ve got to open yourself up,” he urged the audience members, some of whom had begun to look queasy as he described the ingredients. One tray held sushi made with lionfish, which is native to the Pacific but in the past twenty years has spread up the Atlantic Coast from Venezuela to Rhode Island. (Lionfish have toxic spines that make them dangerous to handle.) Another tray had sushi made with jellyfish and cooked rabbit. (Rabbits, though native to North America, are extremely destructive invaders in places like Australia.) A third tray contained bite-size Asian shore crabs, which are indigenous to the western Pacific. First recorded in American waters in 1988, Asian shore crabs are now abundant from Maine to North Carolina, and they are such successful omnivores that in some areas they have driven out the green crabs.

“Do you have any soy sauce?” a woman asked.

“You don’t need any soy sauce,” Lai told her. The lionfish was popular, but many passed on the Asian crabs, which had been sautéed with lime and chili powder. They crunched like popcorn.

Pulling out a big bowl of sushi rice, Lai invited audience members to assemble burdock rolls. “This hasn’t made me want to rush out to my back yard and dig up my burdock,” one woman whispered, after sampling the results, which tasted woody. Lai passed out more rice and Lincoln Log-shaped pieces of burdock. A student handed him back a roll with the diameter of a salami. “Oh, that’s a monster,” Lai said, laughing. “It’s like an enchilada.”

He sliced the roll with a sushi knife and popped a piece into his mouth. “But it’s delicious,” he said. ♦

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