The cicadas are here. While some folks are reaching for protective netting and headgear, tennis rackets and fly swatters, others are readying the saute pan and skillet.
"Cicadas are the truffles of the insect world," says Gaye Williams, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture in Annapolis. "They're just like any other food commodity, but they're scarce."
"If people really want a food experience, this is the year to do it because of the huge numbers of cicadas," Williams said. Millions are expected to emerge in central Maryland.
Before you recoil in horror at the idea of eating the red-eyed bugs, consider these tidbits about entomophagy -- the eating of insects: In Australia, roasted witchetty grubs are folded in a dip and spread on bread; people in Thailand feast on deep-fried tempura water bugs; Japanese crunch on grasshoppers marinated in soy sauce; and don't forget those pickled maguey worms in Mexican tequila.
"Americans are the only ones around who are grossed out by eating insects. For most people around the world, insects are a major food source or delicacy," says Williams, whose office cookbook collection includes Entertaining With Insects or the Original Guide to Insect Cookery and Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects.
Her advice to the squeamish? "Get over it. How about shrimp, oysters, crab, crayfish and lima beans? There are people who eat lima beans ... mushy, gross, nontasting lima beans."
Mike Raupp, a professor and extension specialist at the University of Maryland department of entomology, likes his cicadas deep-fried and skewered on bamboo sticks in a recipe called Shanghai Cicadas.
"It's a pretty unique taste," Raupp says. "Cicadas are relatively bland, mild, crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside with a nutty flavor."
Raupp is teaching a one-credit course for graduate students formally called Periodical Cicadas: A Model System for Extension and Outreach. Outside the classroom, he and his 12 students are creating quite a buzz as the "Cicadamaniacs."
One student has stepped into the world of insect cookery by assembling a cookbook to commemorate this year's historical and awesome event. Dubbed Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas, the manual was created by Jenna Jadin and her classmates.
Jadin features cicadas in many recipes that carry a Maryland theme. There's Maryland Cicadas, laced with Old Bay seasoning, Soft-Shelled Cicadas and Cicada-Rhubarb Pie listed among others found at www.urhome.umd.edu/newsdesk/scitech/cicadas.cfm.
"I thought it would be a fun thing to do," says Jadin, who started the project after concluding that recipes calling for cicadas would be hard, if not impossible, to come by.
She has created an Emergence Cookie to replicate the insect's grand entrance after tunneling through dirt and mud to appear above ground. A preboiled and dry-roasted cicada placed in the center of a soft chocolate-cookie batter visually marks the occasion.
Cicadas can be prepared like any other food. Bake, grind, chop, saute, blanch, marinate, quick-fry, deep-fry, wok toss, pickle or roast them.
They pretty much go with anything.
"If you do them in garlic and Old Bay, they'll taste garlicky and Old Bay-ish," Williams says. "They're not quite as neutral as tofu because they do have their own flavor. Think meat in little packages when eating cicadas."
A word of caution: The University of Maryland and Cicadamaniacs say some folks, especially those with food allergies, could be allergic to cicadas. To be safe, consult your doctor before eating them.
Harvesting cicadas is easy. Capture them in the teneral or soft, pale adult stage before their shells harden and turn black. Williams said they tend to be more tender in the evenings when they emerge. Be sure they're alive and appear healthy.