Should invasive species like the nutria, which has been chomping its way through Louisiana’s coastal marshes, end up on our dinner plates? Image: Carol Foil, Flickr.

Johnny Blancher’s family has deep roots in New Orleans, and Blancher considers himself a pretty creative chef. You have to be to make it in this town – food’s a big deal in the Big Easy. On his small city farm adjacent to his family’s restaurant  – Ye Olde College Inn – Blancher grows his own herbs, vegetables and even sugar cane for his gourmet meals. On his ranch in nearby Vermillion Parish, he raises grass-fed beef and has been known to gather some of the wild flora and fauna he finds there – berries, persimmon and the occasional turtle – for his meals. But even Blancher hadn’t thought about eating the exotic species overrunning the marshes of coastal Louisiana, the streets of New Orleans and the waters of Gulf of Mexico ... until a group of crazy environmental journalists invaded his hometown.

It all started when organisers from the Society of Environmental Journalists contacted Blancher’s father about hosting an event for their annual conference and mentioned their struggle to find a chef willing to cook up some unconventional fare. The elder Blancher immediately thought of his adventurous son. “I said I’d love to do it,” Blancher told me later. “I knew a little bit about invasive species. We see their effects right there on the ranch. We have (invasive) purslane all over the place. It’s something that’s important to me and I felt, well, let’s have fun with this.”

It’s an appealing idea – why not just eat all those invasive creatures that disrupt ecosystems, displace native species and generally make a nuisance of themselves? And in some cases, it seems to work. Chefs and diners have discovered that the Pacific lionfish overtaking reefs in Florida and the Caribbean are delicious, and have created a growing market that scientists believe can reduce local populations.

But turning pervasive into palatable can be challenging. Especially when the most pervasive invasives include rodents of unusually large size and particularly prolific insects.   

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Nutria tamale pie, anyone? Image: Amy Mathews Amos

Originally from South America, nutria were introduced to Louisiana in the 1930s for their fur. An estimated five million now flourish on the levees of the Mississippi River and the sugar farms along its delta. But they do their worst damage in Louisiana’s fragile coastal marshes. Blancher calls nutria a 'scorched earth animal' since they nibble away at marsh plants with their orange buck teeth, wiping out all the vegetation in an area before moving on.

Even without these invasive rodents, Louisiana’s marshes would be disappearing rapidly. Every hour an area as large as an American football field disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. Levees along the Mississippi River prevent its sediment from replenishing delta soils as it has done in the past. Oil and gas canals cut through marshes, accelerating the erosion of remaining soil. Combine these three ingredients with a few strong hurricanes and rising sea levels due to climate change, and you've got yourself the fastest rate of wetland loss in the world.    

The Formosan termite is another New Orleans invader, arriving in the 1960s in wooden crates from Asia and spreading throughout the region in huge colonies. The insects attack wood at a faster rate than native termites and cause millions of dollars in damage each year.  

Both of these species have a high 'ick' factor ... but that didn’t deter Blancher. “It was harder to get (these animals) in our hands than it was to work with them once we got them,” he said. He put the word out to friends and fellow landowners that he was looking for nutria and feral hogs (another destructive invasive) to cook. A friend of a friend who worked in the local pest control department brought him a bucket of live termites from one of their traps. Another friend knew a trapper named Virgil who catches wild hogs and just happened to have a foot-long nutria on hand as well. “I don’t even know his last name,” said Blancher. “Some good old country boy in the middle of nowhere.”

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Invasive tiger prawns … now char-broiled and accompanied by a fragrant risotto. Image: Amy Mathews Amos

Unlike hogs and termites, gigantic Indo-Pacific tiger prawns that have recently invaded the Gulf of Mexico were easier to get hold of – they’re now sold commercially, according to Blancher. Shrimpers started spotting them a few years ago and scientists now believe they’re here to stay. No one’s sure how they got here – perhaps by travelling in the ballast water of ships or escaping from shrimp farms in the Caribbean. But everyone’s watching their spread with trepidation: they can grow a foot long and are aggressive predators, potentially devouring local shrimp and other species.

Once in hand, Blancher froze the termites to kill them, soaked the nutria in milk to “mild-out the flavour” and roasted the whole hog in the Cajun Cochon De Lait style. After a little trial and error, he and his three chefs created a gourmet four-course meal featuring nutria tamale pie with cebollita cream sauce, char-broiled tiger prawns with wild mushroom risotto and truffle essence, crispy Cajun boudin cake with wild boar and pepper jelly purslane and pimento aioli, and Alabama peach cobbler with termite streusel (the crumbly bit on top) and vanilla bean ice cream.

As one of the environmental journalists attending the dinner, I can report firsthand that the meal was delicious. But it would take a heck of a lot of peach cobbler to trim New Orleans's exploding termite population. And to be honest, the best thing about the nutria was the crumbly corn tamale surrounding it and the nice merlot I had to wash it down. 

So maybe we can’t eat our way out of the invasive species explosion after all. Even so, Blancher’s now wondering if putting these critters on his menu might draw a certain adventurous crowd to his popular restaurant. “This meal came out so well, I’m thinkin’ about it,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. After all, it is New Orleans – a place to try anything at least once. 

Top header image: Gisela Francisco, Flickr