They might also be the summer treat you’ve been waiting for.
This summer marks the first time in 17-years that billions of cicadas belonging to Brood X will make their noisy return to our lawns, parks, and golf courses for a truly awe-inspiring mating practice.
Most people will probably spend their cicada summer either cowering indoors or snapping photos on a conservationist app like Cicada Safari. But there also exists a third way to enjoy your cicada summer: as a crispy salad topping or as adornment on a cake. That’s right, cicada feasting season is upon us — if you dare.
But just because you can eat cicadas, does that mean you should? Keith Clay, professor and department chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Tulane University, and John Cooley, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, help Inverse break it down.
Check, please is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
Here’s the background — Soon the cicadas will emerge, mate, lay their eggs, and die. After being laid in tree bark, their offspring will tumble to the ground by the end of summer to make their way back into the soil and start the cycle all over.
Endemic to only the Eastern United States, these small arthropods will squirm out of their snug soil homes when the temp underground begins to hit 64 degrees Fahrenheit, which usually happens around mid-May. It’s likely they’ll emerge until late June.
Can you eat cicadas?
The simple answer: yes. Clay, the Tulane University professor, says he’s indulged on a number of occasions — including at a cicada-themed party in 2004.
“In 2004, the last time Brood X emerged, I remember people had a cicada party where everybody brought food — like a potluck — with the restriction that cicadas had to be included in every single dish,” Clay tells Inverse.
When it comes to taste and appearance, the most accessible comparison, says Clay, is to a shrimp. Like a shrimp, cicadas have a hard, fibrous carapace but a juicy, meaty abdomen. Their texture is a little bit softer and a little bit more asparagus flavored he says, but nevertheless still distinctly shrimpy.
But when it comes to choosing a cicada to eat, Clay says you need to be careful at which maturity stage you snag them from. Adult cicadas that have just laid their eggs and are preparing to die are too crunchy, while newly hatched baby cicadas returning to the soil to slumber are too tiny (like grains of rice, says Clay.)
In this Goldilocks scenario, it’s the cicada nymphs — those that have emerged from the ground but have not yet hardened their exoskeleton — which are the best for eating.
“It is a critical period of time in their development,” explains Clay.
“If their wings don't form completely and perfectly [then] they can't fly and they're basically failures. They're very vulnerable for the three or four hours it takes for their wings to harden.”
Cooley, the University of Connecticut professor, has not eaten cicada. But he does add it's important to wash them before preparing. You can also remove anything tough (like the head) for a slightly less abrasive texture.
Clay also says that the cicadas can be humanely and “painlessly” killed before eating by briefly popping them into the fridge or freezer — although, some people may skip this step, says Clay, and go directly to the stove.
Should you eat cicadas?
When it comes to the question of whether or not you should eat cicadas, Cooley isn’t quite sold — but for a more philosophical than squeamish reason.
“You get into some philosophically interesting territory when you’re eating your study organisms,” says Cooley. “The fruit fly people aren’t out there eating their fruit flies.”
While periodical cicadas, like Brood X, are famously known for having strength in numbers (a predator avoidance technique called satiation, in which they over-stuff their predators in hopes that they can’t possibly eat the entire brood) Cooley says that picking up these cicadas by the bucket or truckbed full may not be good for their ultimate survival.
“If somebody shows up with a giant truck and starts shoveling cicadas into the truck to turn into food — that is going to have an effect on the ecosystem,” Cooley says. He compares it to shooting fish in a barrel.
While crickets and mealworms, for example, can be bred in large trays in a controlled lab, cicadas don’t have that same ability. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t eat cicadas, but suggests you should do so in a mindful way, Cooley says.
“You get into some philosophically interesting territory when you’re eating your study organisms.”
On the bright side, Clay suggests trying a cicada — especially with the popular media attention humming around Brood X — could be a gateway drug to help people open up their minds to other, more sustainable, forms of insect protein as well.
Cicadas are a low-carb and low-fat protein option (looking at you, keto enthusiasts) with about the same amount of protein per pound as red meat — something just over 100 grams. Though keep in mind that you’ll have to eat a lot more cicadas than burgers to reap this benefit.
And while the idea of eating insects might seem strange or new to the U.S. palette, we’re actually far behind the curve of countries like Ghana or Thailand where insects have long been a part of the local diet.
In general, insect-based protein is not only nutritious but offers a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to consume meat-based protein than industrial farming. In 2018, the farming industry accounted for 10.5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Is eating a cicada dangerous?
So you’re slathered up in sunscreen and armed with a small beach pail and an eye for thumb-sized cicada nymphs — the next order of business before you can cook these treats up and eat them is to weigh a few safety concerns.
Cicadas are not poisonous, dead or alive — and in this scenario, you are collecting the bugs while they’re fresh and squirming.
However, Cooley says there has been recent research suggesting that they bioaccumulate mercury from the ground, similar to fish like swordfish, or sharks. Scientists don’t yet really know how much or how dangerous this could be, but Cooley says it gives him pause.
Another thing to consider when collecting your cicada harvest is the condition of the ground you’re collecting it from. Commercial areas like golf courses are more likely to use harmful pesticides or herbicides that could leach into the cicadas slumbering underground.
For that reason, Clay suggests that collecting cicadas from your own yard might be the safest bet.
The best cicada recipes
At long last — it’s time to eat some cicadas. Unlike crickets or mealworms, which are commonly dried out and transformed into flour for easy, high-protein consumption, Clay says the most common way he’s had cicadas is served up whole.
At the cicada-themed potluck he attended, Clay says he saw cicadas included in everything from brownies to cakes and stir-fries. At one point Clay says that a Cincinnati restaurant even served them up as pizza toppings.
His personal favorite way is cooking the juicy nymphs up in a frying pan with just a little bit of butter, soy sauce, and hot sauce. If you can overcome the squeamishness of their appearance, Clay says we may all be better for it.
“We're gonna have to be more open-minded and more adaptable going forward if we're going to survive,” says Clay.
Ready to try the food of the future now? Check out if you live in an area where Brood X is emerging here. If 2021 isn’t your year, there’s always Brood XIII in 2024.