What's the Deal with...Invasivorism?

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
April 2, 2014

You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Feral hogs are pretty cute. Photo credit: Getty Images

"Invasivorism." Practice saying it, because you’re gonna be hearing it a lot at cocktail parties and spying it on menus. Feral hog sashimi, grilled snakehead tacos, and Asian carp cakes, anyone? 

The new kid on the block of foodie terminology has surfaced over the last few years, but the trend is anything but new: People have been eating invasive species for ages.

recent article showcasing Connecticut chef Bun Lai as he chased down that evening’s menu offerings (Asian shore crabs) as they scuttled along the shoreline thrust invasivorism even further into the spotlight. To get the full story, we spoke to Joe Roman, conservation biologist at The University of Vermont, author of the website Eat the Invaders, and dedicated invasivore. 

What It Is: Invasivorism is the act of eating invasive species, on purpose, in order to lower their numbers, or “directing our appetite in a way that could have a positive impact,” says Roman. An “invasivore” is one who practices this.

Where It Comes From: "Almost everything we really like to eat, we’ve lowered their numbers or even brought them to extinction," says Roman. Invasivorism has been around for thousands of years. In America, Roman points to the example of passenger pigeons. "We ate them in pies. By the end of the nineteenth century, they were gone.”  

Defining Characteristic: The creature itself must be presenting a sustainability problem because of its overabundance, such as the Asian carp that have been dominating the Mississippi River over the last several years. 

Most Problematic Invasive Species: Roman immediately thinks of feral hogs, which he says are “highly invasive here [in America],” where we have about 5 million feral hogs. They’ve been a huge problem in Texas and are making their way north: “They just showed up in New York, and are making their way to Vermont.” He points to Cuba as a model, where citizens have consumed feral hogs in order to reduce their numbers. 

Best Intro Invasivore Food: The Eat the Invaders website is a good starting point; Roman points to burdock, “delicious” bay lilies, Japanese notweed (“perfect for chutneys!”), and dandelions as easy-to-find-and-eat invasive species.

The Risks: Roman acknowledges that there is a small risk of popularizing invasives to the point that they are over-consumed. “The big warning,” as he puts it, is people thinking, “Asian carp are awesome, let’s move them to a new river! Let’s put them in California!” He qualifies that: “I think that that risk is small given that most people are environmentally conscious that have taken on this movement. If it was commercialized, it’s possible that there would be an increased demand.” Roman points to periwinkles, an invasive European snail, by way of example: “There are millions of them. I don’t think we’re gonna eat them to extinction.”

What Motivates Invasivores: "It’s a great way where culinary interest can meet sustainability or ecological interest," says Roman, pointing out that the two are "often at odds.” Here, by contrast, “you can really do the right thing and it’s actually enjoyable.” 

To that end, here’s a recipe for eating periwinkles, courtesy of the inimitable Jacques Pépin. Roman got the famous chef on the phone when researching an article about cooking invasive species, and, as he writes on his site, “when I rang him up, he told me that he just collected some periwinkles along the [Connecticut] shore with his brother. He served the invaders with chilled white wine at his home that weekend.”

Of course he did. Below, Pépin’s recipe, in case you acquire the invasivore bug.  

Bigorneau à la Madison
from Jacques Pépin
Serves 4 to 6

3 cups periwinkles
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1/4 cup dry white wine

1. In a large bowl of cold water, wash and rub together approximately three cups of periwinkles, each about one inch in diameter. Lift the periwinkles from the water and put them in a medium saucepan, preferably stainless steel.
2. Add the olive oil, Tabasco, and wine to the periwinkles and bring to a hard boil. Cover and boil for 2 to 3 minutes, removing the lid and stirring them once or twice while they cook. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to warm.
3. Straight pins can be used to remove the snails from their shells. (Pépin notes: “At our house, we stick several pins into a wine cork and pull them out as needed at the table.”) The operculum should be removed before sticking a pin into the shell opening and extracting the flavorful meat.