The Invasivore's Dilemma
An innovative sushi chef named Bun Lai has a new strategy in the war on invasive species: If you can’t beat ’em, plate ’em. Feral hog sashimi, anyone?
Bun Lai is rolling rocks in the dark along a craggy coastline, clawing on all fours after the little crabs that burst like roaches from underneath, stuffing them into a bucket.
With his spotlight and his pail and his perfect snap-on hair, he looks like an action figure. We are on a clandestine mission that began at 10:30 P.M. at Miya’s, Bun’s New Haven, Connecticut, sushi restaurant, where I asked him who did the foraging for the restaurant, which has become famous for serving invasive organisms. “You’re looking at him,” he replied.
So here we are, at low tide on a steamy summer night, scrabbling around a closed Connecticut beach park. When the crabs bolt, you must quickly slap your hands on top of them, then get your fingers underneath. They scratch unhappily at your skin, but they are only the size of 50-cent pieces. It feels like a prickly manicure. Sometimes you can get them to hang by their claws from the web of your thumb.
The first time Bun did this was in 2005, with his buddy Yancey Orr, a waiter at Miya’s who went on to get his Ph.D. in anthropology at Yale and now teaches in Australia. They’d gone to the shore because Bun wanted to use more local ingredients. But they had no idea where to start. In Connecticut, Orr mused by e-mail, “no one really interacts with the environment at the level of caloric intake.”
They tried oysters but worried about toxins in the filter feeders. They chewed seaweeds. Then they noticed the speckled brown crabs scuttling around the rocks. Bun, who grew up playing in Long Island Sound, didn’t remember them from childhood. He discovered that they were Asian shore crabs, an invasive species that arrived in 1988, dumped out with the ballast from some cargo ship, and had already taken over the coastline from New Hampshire to New Jersey, like a marauding army of nanobots. “At that point,” Bun says, “I was already working on evolving sushi into a cuisine centered around more planet-healthy ingredients. The invasive-species thing made perfect sense.”
Bun and Orr had no idea what to do with the crabs. “We sautéed them, tried them soaked in red wine, boiled, raw, et cetera,” Orr recalled. “Raw was a bit rough, as they crawled around in your mouth and didn’t taste so great.” Fried whole, however, they turned bright orange and ultracrispy, like Doritos with legs. The crabs have been a staple at Miya’s ever since.
Bun is not your typical sushi chef. This 44-year-old son of New Haven has the smooth, rippled body of a porn star and a voice like Captain America. He grew up near Yale, where his Chinese father worked as a medical researcher. When he was nine, his parents divorced, his father moved away, and his Japanese mother opened Miya’s, which was named for Bun’s sister—though since he took over he has been threatening to change the name to Bun’s After Dark and use the Underalls logo for his sign. He was the captain of his prep-school wrestling team, and he used to fight illegal mixed-martial-arts matches in a Waterbury, Connecticut, warehouse. Now he fights for food justice. On his bookshelves, you can find everything from The Cornel West Reader to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kickboxing. During one of his previous foraging operations, he was arrested for trespassing while taking a leak in the woods.
A little lower down the dark beach, Joe Roman is pulling periwinkles off the rocks, tossing the little snails into another pail. A bespectacled, late-forties conservation biologist at the University of Vermont and the creator of a website called Eat the Invaders (“Fighting invasive species, one bite at a time!”), Roman tells us how Littorina littorea, a European native, arrived in the Northeast in the 1860s and began eating salt marshes from Maine to New York. Our coasts are starker and less productive than they used to be, thanks to this file-tongued little mollusk, which has endangered numerous local species. In places you can find 700 periwinkles per square yard.
The Asian shore crab may wind up being even worse. It eats anything it can fit in its mouth, including native crabs and juvenile lobsters. “This is a totally different system now than just a few decades ago,” Roman says. “Go to a place where the invaders are present and you see a battlefield.” And the crab, which can lay up to 200,000 eggs per year, is expanding its forces in all directions.
Like their hundreds of fellow invasive species from Miami to Malibu, these two aggressors will continue to engulf the Republic. But not these particular troops. These will be dinner. If all goes according to plan, we will spend the next 24 hours apprehending the alien and the overabundant wherever they lurk. Then we will devour them.
The America you grew up in is history. It has been clogged by zebra mussels and snuffed by snakeheads. It has been swallowed by Burmese pythons and smothered by kudzu. It has been swarmed by crazy ants.
Forget the notion of stable ecological communities that have existed in harmony for thousands of years; what we have now is an endless war zone where invasive insurgents go from building to building, routing the locals. Simply strolling down Bun’s driveway in the leafy Connecticut burbs the morning after our late-night crab-athon, Roman could point to all the slow-motion carnage. Dense mats of garlic mustard in the woods that drip chemicals into the soil to keep anything else from growing. “Invasive.” Clots of burdock along the roadside. “Invasive.” Dark ranks of knotweed infiltrating a stream bank. “Invasive.”
Not all introduced species become invasive. Most newcomers move into town, settle down, and become part of the fabric of the place. Apple trees, for example, originally from Kazakhstan, have been model citizens since they arrived with colonists four centuries ago. But of the 7,000 or so introduced species that have made a new life in the United States, about 1,000 are trashing the place at a rate that puts most of our other concerns to shame. Worrying about the impact that climate change may have on a region’s ecology while ignoring the work of invasive species is kind of like fretting over next year’s crops while Vikings torch the harbor.
That’s because, with little if any natural predators or diseases, an invasive species has few checks on its reproductive rates, and it quickly goes about outcompeting the locals, if not directly consuming them. The result: the collapse of a local species, followed by the collapse of the natives that depended on that species, followed by ecological death spiral.
The America you grew up in is history. It has been clogged by zebra mussels and snuffed by snakeheads. it has been swallowed by Burmese pythons and smothered by kudzu. It has been swarmed by crazy ants.
Exhibit A: Asian carp, imported from China in the 1970s by fish farmers in the South who hoped that the carp, which feed on algae, would help keep their ponds clean. The carp soon escaped into the Mississippi River Basin and now fill the Midwest’s rivers, where they sometimes comprise 90 percent of the biomass. These are the carp that weigh in at 50 pounds and jump ten feet out of the water when startled, whacking passing boaters upside the head like piscine two-by-fours. In 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers released its long-awaited master plan for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by severing all the arteries that connect the Mississippi River watershed to Lake Michigan. The price tag? Some $18.4 billion.
Exhibit B: the Burmese python, which first entered the Everglades in the 1980s or 1990s as escaped pets. Now as many as 150,000 of the snakes, which can grow to nearly 20 feet in length, inhabit Florida’s river of grass, and they have eaten 87.5 percent of the bobcats, 98.9 percent of the possums, 99.3 percent of the raccoons, and all the rabbits and foxes, as well as untold birds and alligators. A highly publicized 2013 python hunt, involving more than 1,000 participants, managed to net only 68 of the elusive apex predators.
Exhibit C: the lionfish, which Carl Safina, founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute, calls “the perfect invasive storm.” A native of the Indian Ocean that looks like it escaped from the cover of a Yes album, the lionfish is popular for aquariums. Dumped out of a few fish tanks into South Florida seas in the 1990s, it began showing up throughout the Caribbean in the 2000s. Bristling with poisonous spines, it has no local predators, and it can reproduce year-round, with the typical female producing one million eggs.
Most disastrous land invasion? Easy: Sus scrofa, the feral hog. The so-called pig bomb detonated in Texas in the 1980s after the Eurasian natives were stocked on game ranches, from which they quickly escaped and interbred with domestic pigs, but it has rippled out to 45 other states. Soon Alaska may be the only holdout. America is infested with at least five million wild hogs, half of them in Texas, which cause a good $1.5 billion in damages each year. Wild hogs uproot peanuts and other crops, destroy lawns, devour endangered species, spread diseases, and turn huge swaths of wetlands into eroding pigsties. They’ll eat corn, sugarcane, wheat, vegetables, snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, muskrats, deer, goats, lambs, calves, and even feral piglets. They reproduce three times a year and have no natural predators. Texas “harvests” more than 750,000 hogs per year, but the population is still doubling every five years.
You get the idea. A decade ago, researchers estimated the annual cost of invasive species in America at $120 billion, which is more than the U.S. spends to maintain its roads. And that includes only measurable items—such as crop losses, the $1 billion municipalities spend each year to scrub zebra mussels out of their water pipes, and so on. Ecological costs are harder to quantify but staggering: nearly half the species on the U.S. threatened and endangered species lists were put there by invaders. Then there are simple quality-of-life considerations. Imagine the South without fire ants. That’s how it was until the 1930s, when the South American invader snuck into the port of Mobile, Alabama, on a cargo ship. Now they’ve been joined—in (where else?) Texas—by crazy ants, tiny invaders who swarm electronic components, wall sockets, and human skin by the millions.
Obviously, in a country that can’t find an extra billion to buy new bridges, the government is not going to fund the war on invaders. (President Clinton established the National Invasive Species Council in 1999, but it still seems to spend most of its energy debating the definition of invasive species. Its 2013 meeting was canceled.) Market-driven approaches hold more promise: put the critters on a plate and let them bankroll their own demise. After all, we have chomped our way through mammoths, moas, dodos, and every oyster in New York Harbor, and we are closing in on the last tuna and swordfish. Why not channel that appetite in a more productive direction?
My first training in the way of the invasivore came a few months before I met Bun, when I sat in a Boston restaurant watching New Hampshire chef Evan Mallett plate buttermilk-poached-dogfish salads. We were at the first Trash Fish Dinner, the start of a national series organized by Chefs Collaborative, a group of sustainability-minded chefs. The idea was to promote abundant fish that nobody eats, to take pressure off the familiar fare that’s running out. A month earlier, draconian cuts in cod quotas had been announced, a development that was expected to put many New England fishermen out of business.
“They’ve been hammered so many times,” Mallett told me. “I think we’re looking at an extinct industry.” Mallett is the chef and owner of the Black Trumpet Bistro in downtown Portsmouth. “I look out on a river that is the mouth of what both the natives and European settlers agreed was the prime fishing area,” he said. “And now there’s little there. It’s incredibly depressing.” So Mallett was pushing the spiny dogfish, a three-foot shark with a creepy Far Side grin that, while not technically invasive, has taken over the North Atlantic. When we overfished cod, dogfish rushed into the void. Trawlers fishing for cod now shred their nets on spiny dogfish instead. Unfortunately, the fish is virtually unsalable. (“Some sharks piss through their skin,” Mallett explained to me. “Seriously.”) But if gutted and bled immediately, he insisted, dogfish can be clean and delicious.
Which it was—not even a hint of pee. Mallett nodded. “We did a dogfish po’boy last summer. If we put it in front of someone and they ate it, they loved it. But trying to talk someone into ordering the dogfish po’boy was an exercise in futility.”
Six years ago, Bun blew up his menu. “I started taking ingredients away,” he says. “First octopus, then sea urchin. Then the big stuff. When I told my waiters I was going to remove tuna, they started hyperventilating.”
Next to Mallett, Drew Hedlund, chef of the Fleet Landing Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, handed me a cup of lionfish ceviche with grapefruit, key lime juice, and candied citrus peel. “They’re all over the reefs. It’s alarming,” he said. “And they keep expanding northward. You’d think these fish would be getting smaller as they leave the warm tropical waters, but it’s the opposite. We seem to be getting much larger fish up north.” Because they live amid delicate reefs, lionfish must be speared or netted by hand. Leading the charge is an organization called REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), which holds lionfish derbies throughout Florida and the Bahamas. Last September, REEF broke its previous record, with 100 divers collecting 707 lionfish off Key Largo. Dozens of restaurants in the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean now serve lionfish.
Invasivorism is not a new idea. In 1997, Louisiana tried to solve its nutria problem by ringing the dinner bell on the South American marsh rodents, which have been called “mammalian lawn mowers” because of their ability to eat grasses down to bare mud. Many parts of Louisiana are infested with as many as 6,000 nutria per square mile. The state spent $2 million encouraging people to eat nutria, but the campaign fizzled. Studies found that nutria was embraced only by individuals who already favored muskrat.
But thanks to chefs, the invasivore movement has caught fire. Some of the worst invaders, like gypsy moths and Asian long-horned beetles, will not grace lunch counters anytime soon, yet where perniciousness meets deliciousness, there is hope.
The feral hog that plagues Texas, for example, is the same animal as the wild boar, the sacred cinghiale of Italian gastronomy. Now you can snack on local-boar chili in Houston or do a surf-and-turf of wild boar and invasive Asian tiger shrimp in Austin. In New Braunfels, Bubba’s Bacon Station—a subsidiary of Ortiz Game Management and Hog Removal of Texas (“If you have large territorial hogs that are taking over your yard or destroying crops WE CAN HELP!”)—buys or traps hogs, processes them under USDA inspection, and delivers them to the San Antonio Food Bank and other lucky clients. “They are an untapped, underused, available cuisine in ample supply in almost every county in Texas,” says Bubba Ortiz.
Asian carp, which now fill some Midwestern rivers at the unbelievable density of 13 tons per mile, could feed half of Chicago. The drawback? Their soft flesh and countless bones disgust people. (Bun Lai likens carp anatomy to “a hairbrush smeared with peanut butter.”) An effort to rebrand them as Kentucky tuna somehow failed to take off. Yet, at another Trash Fish Dinner, in Chicago last May, Paul Fehribach of the local Southern-cooking eatery Big Jones got raves for his crispy carp cakes. “Asian carp’s got really sweet meat,” he told me. “It reminds me so much of crab, but without the bottom-feeder funk, so I did it breaded and deep-fried in batter.” Now he’s working on carp fish sticks.
Yet the occasional trash-fish dinner is not going to change the status quo. It’s a fine token, a way of getting people engaged, but what the world needs is trash-fish diners—joints slinging invaders and bycatch every night. Chefs willing to put their whole menu where their mouth is. What the world needs is Bun Lai.
Six years ago, Bun blew up his menu. He didn’t want to feel bad anymore from putting foods like white rice and sugar in his body or anybody else’s. And he didn’t want to feel bad because he was serving the last bluefin on earth. He began to wonder if sushi could be used to heal bodies, communities, and oceans.
First, he swapped white rice for brown. “Then,” he says, “I started taking ingredients away. First octopus, then sea urchin. I knew that would be easy. I wasn’t killing it with sea urchin anyway. Then the big stuff started going. Unagi. That pissed people off. Then I did yellowtail. Then tuna in 2010. When I told my waiters I was going to remove tuna, they started hyperventilating. For them it can be really, really difficult to explain what we’re trying to do.”
In place of tuna, Bun offered sustainable options like the Water Pig Roll (applewood-smoked Connecticut mackerel, goat cheese, and cranberries) and the Kwanzaa Bonanzaa (a coconut-covered roll of fried Mississippi catfish, sweet potato, avocado, cream cheese, cantaloupe, burdock, and hot sauce). The sushi snobs savaged him online. (“This is not sushi. This is not sushi. This is not sushi.”) Many walked out after perusing the menu. Many newcomers still walk out, but after a wobbly decade that saw Miya’s flirt with bankruptcy, the restaurant has developed a loyal, even rabid, clientele who will follow Bun off any gastronomic cliff. They willingly made the leap into invasivorism. Five invasive species are now standard on his menu: the burdock in the Kwanzaa Bonanzaa roll; the seaweeds in the miso soup; the Asian shore crabs, fried and placed as if in mid-crawl on a pile of rolls and seaweeds meant to evoke the Connecticut shoreline; lionfish sashimi; and a notorious peanut-butter-and-jellyfish roll. (“Invasive cannonball jellyfish, trawled off the state of Georgia, is thin sliced and mixed with steamed invasive Australian rabbit and cucumber” and “seasoned with creamy roasted peanut butter.”)
For special occasions, Bun goes further, breaking out the Japanese knotweed lemonade and the hog sashimi, first freezing it to five degrees for 20 days to kill any trichinosis worms. Last June, he held a special cicada dinner to celebrate the superabundance of the 17-year insects. He originally planned to hold it at Miya’s. No, no, no, the health department said. So he moved it to his house and threw an open-invite party. About 50 people showed up, half of whom he didn’t know. He served hundreds of cicadas, marinated in lime and chili, smoked, then crisped in a dehydrator. Reactions were mixed. “The outside was satisfyingly crispy,” said one guest. “But as I bit into it, there was a pop/squish that was a little unexpected.” Another: “It was weird flossing wings out of your teeth.”
“They were a hit,” Bun insists. “If I had a bunch, I’d be snacking on them right now. But if I had a basketful of cicadas and was standing outside Starbucks, I don’t think I’d have gotten the same reception.”
When the sushi snobs tell Bun this is not sushi, this is not sushi, this is not sushi, he tells them that sushi must evolve. It must again involve a covenant with nature. He tells them you need to use what nature gives you.
Which is how I find myself floating beneath a red buoy in Long Island Sound the afternoon after our crab hunt, sucking on a snorkel and wondering what else might be lurking in the warm, pea green water. I’d asked Bun and Roman, just how far can invasivorism go? Show me that yoru can eat well in Connecticut off the invasive and underutilized, and I’ll believe that you can do it anywhere.
What nature is giving us at the moment is seaweed. Neon green wakame and creepy tendrils of something called dead man’s fingers, both invasive as hell, cover the bottom of the buoy, which is pumping up and down in the swells, and I’m trying to rip them off with one hand while holding my breath and stuffing them into a sack tied around my other wrist without getting cold-cocked by the buoy on the downbeat. And I’m worrying that interacting with the environment at the level of caloric intake is, at best, a zero-sum game, but Bun assures me our cooler will soon be brimming with wild, nutrient-dense calories.
We spoon out bowlfuls of soup swirling with green, brown, and red seaweeds, clacking with shells, and salted by the sea. There’s also a fair amount of grit and tunicate grinding between our molars, but hey, this is war.
So I keep grabbing new breaths and diving back for more seaweed. Bun—who is wearing the longest flippers I’ve ever seen, comic-book flippers, really, instilling in me a deep sense of inferiority—has paddled over to a nearby rock in search of tunicates, which he has been threatening to serve me raw. Tunicates, also known as sea squirts, are gelatinous filter feeders that gum onto available surfaces by the thousands, smothering whatever is inside. Some are native to North America, but this particular Japanese variety, known alternately as carpet tunicate and marine vomit, has single-handedly destroyed the Nova Scotia mussel industry and threatens to do the same for other shellfish growers throughout the Northeast. Bun would love to serve them, but uncharacteristically, he has decided not to pursue tunicate cuisine. “They look like uncircumcised penises, and when you bite them they squirt in your mouth.”
“The tunicates were brutal,” Roman agrees, mumbling something about ammonium.
The rope attaching the buoy to the bottom is caked with seaweeds and mussels—not invasive, but abundant to the point of nuisance, which in Bun’s book counts—and the mussels are crusted in an orange slime of immature tunicates, so I suck some more air and follow the rope down, my mask pressed right up against it to see through the brown murk. Sure enough, they come off the rope easily, and soon my sack is filled with mussels and seaweeds.
Bun’s sack is bigger than mine, of course, and Roman has also done well. We kick over to Bun’s boat and offload our contents, and suddenly the cooler won’t even close. The shore crabs from last night use the mussels as scaffolding to make a break for it, skulking around the boat, hiding in corners and waiting for a change in their fortunes.
A vision of invasive miso soup begins to dance in our heads as the evening sun cracks like an egg along the northwest horizon and we pilot the Bunboat up the sound. We have seaweeds, we have shellfish, we have seawater, we just so happen to have a giant wok and a propane tank, and we have nowhere to be. But we need clams.
We steal into a cove rimmed by a 20-foot wall of rock on one side and Connecticut McMansions on the other. We tie up to somebody else’s mooring ball. At the bottom of the cove, Bun suspects, lurk quahogs (native but underutilized, at least by these Gatsbys).
“How will I know?” I ask.
“Just dive to the bottom and feel around.”
“How deep is it?”
“Only one way to find out.”
Right. Pale white faces peek out of upper-story windows and gardeners pause in mid-rake to watch the frogmen deploy. I fill my lungs with air and kick straight for Hades, my hands reached out in front, down, down into darkness.
Just about the time the vise is closing on my temples and I’m wondering if I have enough air for the return trip, my hands plunge into mud and almost instantly close on what feel like smooth, fist-sized rocks. I grab as many as I can and kick hard for the surface and explode into air, clutching handfuls of glossy black Mercenaria mercenaria. Then Bun shoots up with even bigger ones, and the quahog hunt is on. We are rooting in the mud like manatees, filling our sacks with clams and gasping for air in between. Eventually, I struggle back to the boat with a sack that feels as if it is full of bowling balls.
Half an hour later, we have commandeered an island of pink rock in the middle of the sound and chased the oystercatchers away. The burner under the wok is roaring like a jet engine, and shore crabs are dancing in dark sesame oil. Bun adds ginger, garlic, periwinkles, and dead man’s fingers and cooks it down into a mushy green marine bruschetta. The other seaweeds, clams, and tunicate-crusted mussels go into a separate wok with a little seawater and miso paste. Soon the tunicates slide off the shells and dissolve into an orange bisque, and suddenly we have New Haven miso soup.
As the color fades from the sky and the day’s heat radiates from the rock, we spoon out bowlfuls of soup swirling with green, brown, and red seaweeds, clacking with shells, and salted by the sea. There’s also a fair amount of the bottom of Long Island Sound in the soup, grit and tunicate grinding between our molars, but hey, this is war.
And I now feel that it’s a war we can win. Who could stop this Chinese-Japanese-American hero for our times, stirring a wok in his Hawaiian-print bathing suit and popping boiling crabs into his mouth? He and Roman have book projects in the works, online plans, speaking gigs, and I foresee a thousand invasivore clubs spreading across the land—not Miya’s exactly, more like Bun’s After Dark, an uprising of scrappy locals going all MMA on the invaders. Wherever the kingdom is threatened, we will be waiting with our chopsticks. For we are hungry. We are open-minded. And we are legion.