By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 26, 2004
At first, back in the early spring when I proposed it, I thought it’d be a good idea: cooking cicadas at a campfire, photographing the fun, and printing the results in the paper. Sort of an experiential guide to cicada eating. But as the appointed day approached for the shoot–May 15, two days before copy deadline for this issue–I was discouraged by the media glut of cicada-eating stories. The only saving grace for my piece, as far as I was concerned, was that no one was yet eating any from this batch of cicadas, which arrive here only every 17 years.
The week of the big event, to my growing consternation, I was told that a young Roland Park fellow had been cooking and eating them for two weeks already. He’d gotten the jump on me, presumably by digging up the subterranean nymphs before they’d emerged to shed their shells. For I had found from my own surveillance that, while some early birds had already crawled out–including about a dozen in mid-April that left their shells in my backyard, within earshot of Camden Yards–the infestation had not yet started in earnest.
Cicada eating on the scale I wanted was going to have to wait for the series of nights when successive legions of the little buggers rose from the soil all across the region, like oversized ants from a giant, kicked-up anthill, and affixed themselves to any available surface in order to shed their underground attire. And the freshest cicada eating was going to have to happen in the middle of the night, when they break free of their shells and glisten new and white in the moonlight.
The experts call these “tenerals,” and their moist, tender abdomens and undeveloped wings make for the best eating. Within hours, as the sun starts to rise, they’ll morph into their most familiar form–hardened adults, with red eyes and plump black bodies, who periodically burst from the foliage into slow, unsteady flight. You can still eat them then, but they’re crunchier, and you’d best pluck the wings off before snacking. It’s kind of like the difference between soft- and hard-shelled crabs; tenerals, like soft-shells among crab enthusiasts, are the bomb.
So it all came down to timing and location: Would the legions arrive by May 15 at Patapsco Valley State Park’s Hollofield Area, just east of Ellicott City, where I’d made camping reservations? If so, we’d have a story. If not, I’d be having my own private party after deadline. The cicadas complied–at the last possible moment.
While waiting, I researched and planned various feasts. I learned that you can “blanch” the tenerals for a minute or two in boiling water, then refrigerate and save them for later use in recipes. Alternately, you can dry-roast cicadas on cookie sheets in the oven at 275 degrees until they’re brittle, and use them like nuts or pound them into flour. Whole bugs, chopped bugs, or cicada-based dough can replace other ingredients to make a range of dishes from any cookbook.
Cooking outdoors with adult cicadas is another kettle of fish. Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance. When hunting them, though, I found it nearly impossible to tell the difference–until cooking, when the males’ bodies shrivel up. Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys (the vinegar in the sauce slow-cooks them, so they start to collapse) while tenderizing the ladies.
Given the logistical challenges of campfire cooking, I made simplicity the rule. In the end, it came down to two approaches: deep-frying and spice-boiling. For the first, I got some Old Bay, cornmeal, flour, eggs, and corn oil. For the second, I got some Old Bay, salt, beer, water, potatoes, onions, corn on the cob, green beans, and smoked sausage. Round out the supplies with Worcestershire sauce, sealable plastic containers, an iron skillet, a five-gallon steamer, a sharp knife, a cutting board, some large bowls, and some dishes and silverware, and you’re outfitted for a cicada cookout.
A few friends and I ran around the park on Saturday, May 15, collecting adult cicadas, but we only found a few dozen. I de-winged the marinated catch, males included (given the slim pickings), and started the deep-fry production line by the fire: a bowl of beaten eggs, a bowl of flour and cornmeal mixed with Old Bay, and a hot skillet of oil.
I deep-fried a couple dozen individually, then added the remaining dozen or so to the leftover beaten eggs, threw in some of the Old Bay-flour mix, and fashioned a sort-of cicada pancake, which bubbled rigorously in the oil. A hot-sauce aficionado arrived just in time with a wide selection (and tortillas), saving the day since I’d neglected to get any in the morning rush.
They say you can deep fry anything and it’ll taste good with hot sauce. It’s true with cicadas. Even the pancake, drenched in hot sauce and held between two tortillas, was a hit. A 1-year-old girl smiled as she slowly chewed on a fried cicada. “We couldn’t get her to eat anything before coming out here,” her mother exclaimed. It’s also said cicadas taste somewhat like a cross between asparagus and walnuts. I say it’s hard to tell if you cook them right.
The next round–the spice boil–had to wait until the wee hours of May 16, for I was determined to bag me some tenerals. But long before then, the small day-time crowd thinned to one, as the photographer said he’d return around midnight. I was left to nap in my tent during a rainstorm. Shortly before midnight, the storm slowed enough for me to wake and jump-start the fire.
I stepped out into the damp, drippy woods with my flashlight, walking no more than 20 yards before seeing them–tenerals, all over the place. I immediately got busy, filling the steamer with water, beer, and Old Bay and setting it on the campfire. I grabbed some Tupperware, poured a few ounces of Worcestershire in, and had just started gathering the juicy white bugs when the photographer showed up, as promised.
Within a half-hour, between the two of us we’d gathered maybe 150 cicadas. The pot was boiling, and I went through the succession of ingredients: first the garlic, then the potatoes (halved), then onions (wedged), then corn (halved), then smoked sausage (sliced into short pieces), then green beans (snapped), and finally, the cicadas, drained of marinade. I boiled the mixture for a minute or two more, then drained everything into a large bowl.
It was 2:30 in the morning and time to eat spice-boiled teneral cicadas–and, like the deep-fried adults, they were a hit. The photographer shoveled rapid-fire forkfuls of bugs into his mouth, relishing them with contented chewing, and washing them down with cold canned beer. He commented on my timidity as I concentrated mostly on the sausage and potatoes. The bugs, I knew, were delicious. But when I swallowed a bite of that pancake earlier, a leg snagged on my esophagus and raked its way down as I chugged some beer. That memory hung on, just like the cicada leg had. Tenerals don’t do that, I knew. Still, I was timid.
The next morning, the leftovers made for a delicious omelette. It came off the fire, ready to eat, just as a few more friends arrived. We ate–again it was good–and then we hiked down to the river, took a dip, broke camp, and went home. I immediately called for pizza delivery. And I thought, Hey, I bet cicadas would be good on pizza. Once every 17 years, you can give it a try.