Just Eat It
Here's a way to deal with excessive numbers of geese, deer and crabs: eat them
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
By Gregory B. Hladky


It can get you into the great outdoors and help the environment. It taps into the locavore craze and the foodie mania for eating weird ****. It can even (if you're so inclined) allow you to kill things with a clear conscience.
Interested? Then try harvesting and eating invasive and ecologically troublesome plants and animals.
You could whet your appetite with a few Asian shore crabs collected from the waters of Long Island Sound. (Deep fried, they taste like crab-flavored potato chips.) How about a side of tender Japanese knotweed shoots plucked in the spring from your own yard? (Lovely, steamed and dressed in homemade dill mayonnaise.)
And for the main course, perhaps a delicious breast of mute swan, some roast Canada goose or a venison steak from your last bow-hunting expedition.
There are a few difficulties with such a menu, of course, as Chef Bun Lai has found in serving some of these enviro-culinary experiments at his New Haven restaurant, Miya's.
"I would say none of them are really popular," Lai admitted. But the special dinners he puts on a few times a year do achieve his main goal, which is to "start a conversation about invasive species" and our relationship to what we eat and how it's grown.
Unfortunately, you might encounter some legal, political and social hurdles with a few of the menu items mentioned above.
Hunting mute swans is banned in Connecticut, even though federal and state wildlife officials consider them an "introduced species" that destroys the habitat of native waterfowl.
You can shoot creatures like the 29,000 resident Canada geese that are ****ting all over Connecticut and polluting our waterways, or the estimated 120,000-plus white-tail deer munching their way toward starvation as they devastate this state's suburban shrubbery and forest lands. That is, you can if you don't mind pissing off groups like the Friends of Animals.
The possibility of supplying restaurants and stores with local wild geese and deer sounds like a viable and ecologically sound project, except for the century-old prohibition on commercial hunting of wildlife in the U.S. Connecticut wildlife experts say it was introduced in response to the eradication or near eradication by commercial hunters of various wildlife species such as the passenger pigeon and the bison.
So the venison or (allegedly wild) goose you can find on some Connecticut restaurant tables or in a few grocery meat cases was almost certainly raised on game farms some as far away as New Zealand.
Serving deer meat from the other side of the world doesn't exactly fit the locavore philosophy, which aims to help the environment by eating stuff obtained from your own neighborhood, thus minimizing the carbon emissions involved with shipping.
Drew Englehardt did take a stab at using Connecticut venison when he used to own the Glockenspiel restaurant in Higginum. The problem, he said recently, was that he was never certain how the meat was going to taste.
"It wasn't consistent," he recalled. "If it's not a good clean shot, the deer's adrenalin starts pumping and it gives the meat a real strong gamey flavor, much stronger than regular venison."
The potentially gamey flavor of venison isn't that much of an issue when it comes to hunters donating deer meat to food banks and shelters to help feed the hungry. Peter Aldrich of Wallingford is a member of one volunteer organization that helped hunters donate more than 2,000 pounds of venison to the Connecticut Food Bank in 2008.
Aldrich said each deer provides about 50 pounds of meat. At that rate, the donated venison translates to something like 40 deer. Those animals provided meals for something like 200 people, said Aldrich.
Officials of the Humane Society and groups like Friends of Animals are completely opposed to the practice since they don't like anything to do with hunting.
Englehardt is now the chef-owner of Coyote Blue in Middletown and he does serve venison at the game dinners he offers a couple of times a year. "But mine comes from New Zealand," he explained. The duck and other game served at those meals are also raised commercially because it's so much simpler.
Lai's concept of serving invasive species originated about five years ago when he and his friends began talking about trying to combine their love of the environment and their love of food.
Miya's has developed a reputation as the only restaurant in the northeastern United States to serve what's called "sustainable sushi," made only with fish that aren't endangered by over-fishing. Meanwhile, the United Nations will reportedly consider a proposed ban on the international trade of bluefin tuna next month.
Lai said the idea of creating a sustainable sushi restaurant in New Haven actually "came from the invasive-species idea."
"We were really thinking about better ways to eat that weren't commercial," he said. "So many commercial practices are bad for the environment."
The idea isn't unique to Lai. Others have called for adopting Chinese techniques of cooking and eating jellyfish, which are becoming a worldwide problem as a result of global warming, or concentrating on commercial fishing of the Asian carp that's infesting rivers in the Midwest and may be about to invade the Great Lakes.
One of Lai's first and most successful invasive-species-as-food experiments involved those Asian shore crabs.
The little buggers (adults only get to about an inch-and-a-half) most likely arrived in the U.S. from their native habitat on the Pacific coasts of China, Korea and Russia in water carried as ballast on ships. The freighters then emptied their ballast tanks when they reached port here, and Hemigrapsus sanguineus made itself right at home.
The first recorded sighting of the creatures in American waters was in 1988 at Townsend Inlet on New Jersey 's Cape May. Since then, they've spread along the coastline from Maine to North Carolina. Recent studies indicate Asian shore crabs may be out-competing native crab species for food; their numbers are soaring while native crabs are in decline.
Lai and his buddies gather the intrusive *******s by hand, with the last batch coming from the waters along Branford's Stony Creek shoreline. But don't bother asking for them right now at Miya's. Lai said he's already served the last he had and doesn't plan to brave the waters of the Sound for more until warmer weather arrives.
Another of Lai's favorites is that Japanese knotweed, which was probably introduced into the U.S. in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant. Since then, it's spread throughout the Northeast and can form dense thickets that crowd out native plants, which puts it on some conservationists' worst-invasive-plant list.
Lai pulls his from his own yard in Hamden in the spring. "The baby shoots are like asparagus," he said. "They're really delicious ... and they go really well with homemade dill mayonnaise."
Some of the other treats on Lai's invasive species menu, which he offers at special dinners several times a year, sound rather less appetizing.
But you might care for "European flat oyster & algae-covered rock simmered in a clear sake chicken broth flavored with Queen Anne's lace root," or lionfish "served raw & thin sliced with crushed Sichuan peppers, roasted seaweed flakes, toasted sesame seeds & fresh chives in our citrus Chinese firecracker sake soy."
One point of all this, according to Lai, is to get people to think about what they're eating.
"When you're dealing with exotic species coming from nature, you appreciate them in a different way than you would commercially raised food," he said. "I think it's good in a psychological sense, and I'd venture to say in a spiritual sense."
Another item on his menu points to the hassles that might arise when chowing down on some invasive species. The "wild swan & kudzu roll" has a nice ring to it, but there are legal and political issues involved.
According to state and federal wildlife authorities, the beautiful big white birds you see floating around Connecticut estuaries, rivers and lakes are a destructive non-native species called the mute swan. They are big, reaching 25 pounds. They are aggressive and territorial; and they consume underwater vegetation at a rate that may drive native waterfowl away from their traditional habitats.
An estimated 1,100 to 1,200 mute swans are swimming in Connecticut waters, said Min Huang, head of the state Department of Environmental Protection's migrating game bird program. "We'd certainly like to see fewer of them around," Huang said.
"They were the favorite [meal] of kings in Europe," said Bob Crook, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen who's been pushing for a Connecticut mute swan hunting season for years. "As far as invasive species go, I can't think of any that my guys would want to eat except for maybe these swans."
Some hunters, of course, would shoot and eat just about anything that crawls, runs, swims or flies. On the other hand, if these birds are invasive and potentially harmful to other native birds, why not let Crook's guys or Bun Lai eat a few?
The first problem is there's a law dating back to the 1950s that specifically prohibits the shooting of mute swans. State officials have no intention of trying to change it.
"We would never propose a hunting season for mute swans," Huang said. "It's because of the public outcry that would happen. ... When you look at a swan, it's a pretty bird."
Kathryn Burton of East Lyme, founder of the group "Save Our Swans," argues the mute swan is a native North American species and that there's no real scientific evidence to prove that it harms any other native waterfowl or that its population is exploding in Connecticut. She sees the official anti-mute swan policy as an ugly bureaucratic conspiracy.
"In the last 20 years, the number of mute swans has never grown beyond ... about 1,000 at most," she said.
Burton believes state and federal wildlife officials want to get rid of mute swans so they can bring the numbers of native trumpeter swans high enough to allow a hunting season for that bird. "They want to make [the trumpeter swan] a trophy bird."
According to Burton, no country in Europe and Asia (the mute swan's alleged natural range) currently allows mute swans to be hunted. "In England, they have tremendous numbers of mute swans and nobody complains," she said.
As it happens, the idea of eating invasive species is catching on in England, particularly when it comes to the North American gray squirrel.
Seems our gray squirrel is bigger and meaner than the European red squirrel, native to the British Isles. According to news reports, there is a growing trend of hunters supplying British butchers with gray squirrel carcasses and they've become a popular item with cooks.
The Guardian called the gray squirrel the "ultimate ethical meal," and claimed butchers are selling it as fast as they can get it.
(As you might expect, the practice has generated some heat. One irate online commenter blasted the whole thing as anti-American and typical of those snooty Brits.)
The concept of eating invasive plants seems to be a whole lot less controversial. Maybe because not many of them sound very tasty. Gregory Bugbee is a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station specializing in invasive aquatic plants.
"Our state lists 19 aquatic species as invasive," said Bugbee. "I'm sure some of these are edible." But Bugbee, who's never tried any himself, isn't about to make any culinary recommendations on the chance that it might be dangerous to consume.
"I guess a lot of things can be eaten," Bugbee said. "The question is, would you want to?"
For pro-environmental culinary adventurers like Bun Lai, the answer is simple.
If you can help save the world by eating something environmentally nasty, why not give it a try?


Cooked Goose
Connecticut has a Canada goose-**** problem. The damned birds are covering playgrounds, parks, ball fields, golf courses and lawns with their poop. It's being washed into storm drains, streams and rivers where it's contributing to a growing water pollution headache.
One way to help solve the problem is to eat them the birds that is, not their crap.
Connecticut hunters have been doing their best, shooting about 20,000 Canada geese every year. But there are still about 29,000 of these big birds living in this state year round, and they really shouldn't be here most of the time.
This is another case of an environmental problem where the blame lies not with Mother Nature but with us.
Our Canada geese don't qualify as an invasive species. They have been migrating through Connecticut along the Atlantic Flyway for tens of thousands of years, traveling north in the spring to their summer nesting grounds and south in the fall to avoid the winter cold. And they've always been hunted for food during their stopovers, first by Native Americans and later by colonialists and their descendants.
Almost none of those birds stuck around the whole year. At least, they didn't until a group of hunters and a state wildlife agency began feeding a few flocks during the winter in the 1940s and 1950s.
Min Huang, head of the state's migratory game bird program, said the first year-round flock was established in Litchfield. A larger type of Canada geese was brought in from the western United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s and were turned into resident birds by feeding them all winter. The idea was to have the birds around so you could extend the hunting season.
The problem was the geese multiplied. By the 1990s, there were nearly 40,000 resident wild geese in Connecticut. State officials started extending the Canada goose hunting season in an effort to control the population.
"In the last six years, we've seen a slight but steady decline in their numbers," Huang said. "It's directly attributable to hunting pressure."
He said state experts estimate that 60 to 70 percent of the approximately 20,000 Canada geese killed by hunters every year are resident birds.
"The problem really remains in urban centers, where hunting is not an option," Huang said.
It's sort of like these geese are becoming a modern version of the ubiquitous urban pigeon, which were originally introduced to cities by the Romans as a source of food.