If you are what you eat, then the people in the Chesapeake were traditionally human-shaped collections of almost every moving thing that the Bay had to offer: muskrats, eels, sturgeon and its inky roe, raccoons, squirrels, woodpeckers, fishy mergansers. Anything was fair game if it kept the belly full and the body working.
But in the last 100 years, as our land sense has faded and our supermarkets have multiplied, palates have grown quite picky. From the Bay’s vast table, only crabs, oysters and a few fish species will do for our rarefied tastes. Our myopic menu choices place tremendous pressure on those three harvests while simultaneously distancing us from the richness and variety of a Bay where diversity is growing as new and aggressive fish, birds, animals and plants invade the estuary.
These mercenary invasive species, introduced by chance or purpose, threaten to change the local landscape forever by displacing or devouring native species. Happy circumstance has also made many of them, like snakeheads and nutria, as improbably delicious as they are aggressive. By choosing to eat the Bay’s invasive species, Chesapeake diners have a recipe for success––a bill-of-invasive-fare can take pressure off stressed oysters, crabs and fish while providing respite to the marshes and creeks that the interlopers have ravaged, and satisfying consumers who can push away from the table with their belts loosened.
One of the Chesapeake’s most notorious (and arguably the ugliest) invaders is the northern snakehead. An Asian species discovered in a Crofton, Md., pond in 2008, snakeheads are the stuff of nightmares: A mug full of teeth like fortified stockades are the prelude to a long, mucous-covered body the color of composted table scraps. They are voracious breeders and eaters, and since their introduction into the watershed, snakeheads have been caught in at least six Bay tributaries.
With no known predator, snakeheads stand to decimate native species in the rivers they inhabit (90 percent of their diet is made up of other fish). This is why residents of the Chesapeake need to step up to the plate and claim their dominant role in the food chain. It doesn’t hurt that the snakeheads’ delicate taste is a 100 leagues away from their appearance––in fact, the original pair released in Crofton were initially purchased as the main ingredient for a Chinese fish soup. If the environmental or gustatory benefit of a platter full of grinning snakeheads doesn’t sell diners the state of Maryland is sweetening the pot by offering up to $200 in prizes in an annual snakehead angling contest. It’s a recipe for population control that might cause more than a few snakeheads to be “what’s for dinner.”
Fish aren’t the only option when it comes to chowing down on invasive species––rodents can also be the source of some pretty good eating. This is not a new idea––there is a longstanding tradition in the Chesapeake of muskratting, with a schedule of festivals dedicated to their trapping, skinning and cooking. Muskrats have such a devoted following, perhaps there’s room for another rat in the pot––their invasive competitors, nutria. Larger than muskrats and boasting a blaze-orange set of powerful incisors, nutria are South American interlopers whose ravenous decimation of marsh grasses has contributed to the loss of 5,000 acres in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge since their introduction. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has overseen a successful campaign to reduce their population, the tenacious nutria is still a threat, providing a perfect opportunity to stretch one’s culinary comfort zone. According to Louisiana’s Wildlife and Fisheries, who run nutria.com, Myocastor coypus is quite the versatile ingredient, with recipes running the gamut from sausage, gumbo, jambalaya and chili to the unforgettable “smothered nutria.”
If nutria or snakeheads don’t suit your tastes, there are multitudes of other international invaders to sample: zebra mussels, blue catfish, water chestnut; even phragmites are considered edible and with a little culinary effort, pretty tasty. The idea of “eating your way to a sustainable Bay” is a simple one, but effective. For the future of our Chesapeake, and to maintain a landscape we recognize, we must belly up and wage gastronomic war with the Bay’s environmental bullies.