Cicada Cuisine

Give up cursing those cicadas. Cook them instead. Eating them is the best revenge.

What? Cook those big red-eyed pesky creatures that have been climbing, crawling and flying all over suburban trees and lawns, making a yellow mess of things?

Sure. You can marinate them in teriyaki sauce and then fry them, and use them in your tacos as a substitute for meat.

Or, you can roast them in the oven on a cookie tin, then when they're crisp, cool them and then crumble them over ice cream like jimmies or into salad like bacon bits or croutons.

Or, you can add some flavoring like lemon juice or garlic, and saute them in butter like mushrooms.

You think this is a joke?

Would serious scientists make jokes about the subject they study so assiduously?

At the Maryland Department of Agriculture in Annapolis, Gaye L. Williams, an entomologist, says people in her profession, who know that people the world over eat insects, are quite fond of cicada dishes.

And Douglass R. Miller, a research leader in the systematic entomology laboratory at the USDA in Beltsville, says the billions of insects that have been making their scheduled 17th-year visit to the eastern United States make an excellent substitute for hamburger.

"To an entomologist, the idea of eating cicadas isn't strange at all," said Ms. Williams. "Ours is a pretty wacky business, and we're always bumping into people who eat insects. There's no reason not to. They're in the same animal group as shrimp and crabs, and people don't think twice about that."

She said her favorite way to eat cicadas is dry roasted. First collect about a quart and set them into the deep freeze to kill them. Then lay them on a cookie sheet and put them into the oven at 200 to 250 degrees until they are crisp. Be careful that you don't overcook.

After they have cooled, you can eat them as is, crumble them as topping for ice cream, or substitute them (crumbled) as nuts in banana-cicada bread. They make a fine, crispy addition to soups, like fried Chinese noodles.

Some people, she said, grind up their dry-roasted cicadas and substitute the resulting flour for half the wheat flour in making pizza crust. Crumbled dry-roasted cicadas also make a delicious topping for the finished pizza, she said.

Do they taste good?

In some recipes, she said, people report a shrimp-like taste. Fried in butter and garlic, they are supposed to taste like escargots. She finds them like tofu -- not much flavor of their own, but a great carrier of nearby flavors.

Dr. Miller enjoys cicadas best in the form of tempura.

"I make up a batter of eggs and milk, or eggs and water, then I dip the cicadas in flour mixed with spices -- anything I have around like salt and pepper or parsley -- then I fry them till they're golden brown. They're delicious that way."

He cautioned against using the mature cicada, which, like a crab, has its skeleton on the outside.

"What you're really preparing," he said, "is soft shell cicada. You want to get them when they've just emerged from their shell while they're still soft. At that time they're called teneral, and the comparison to soft shell crabs is exact. At that stage, they're pure white, except for their eyes, which are red, and some dark markings near the head. The wings are not fully extended.

"For teneral, you have to gather them at dusk or at night or early in the morning. Actually what you've got then is the fully mature nymph. That's when they're the tastiest of all.

"But I have a friend who eats them raw as adults. Just the abdomen. He cuts the head and thorax off -- like shrimp. He says they taste like cream cheese. I haven't tried them that way. I have though of pulling the wings and legs off adults and just boiling them in water with lots of Old Bay seasoning. I imagine they'd be delicious that way."

Ms. Williams commented that because cicadas appear in significant numbers at such great intervals, there aren't many published recipes for preparing them.

"So you have to be creative. One thing I do is use the regular recipes for grasshoppers and just substitute cicadas. I've gotten good ideas out of a cute little book called 'Why Not Eat Insects?' by Vincent M. Holt, published by E.W. Classey, a British firm. And there's a book by a zoology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem called 'Insects as Human Food.'"

She said the Indians used to eat cicadas -- raw as well as dried -- but because the insects arrived so mysteriously and unpredictably, they regarded them as omens of bad tidings.

Eating cicadas should be no more repugnant than eating crabs or oysters, she pointed out. "I do eat crabs, but I can't eat an oyster. To me it's like eating somebody's stomach."

One reason cicadas have had bad press, she said, is that the early American Pilgrims called them locusts -- which they are not -- and thus confused them with the migratory clouds of Biblical locusts, which caused so much destruction.

Dr. Miller objected to the idea of revenge in preparing cicadas as food.

"There's nothing to take revenge for," he said. "They're good to eat -- million and millions of pounds of protein, free for the gathering -- and they do very little damage. And when they come out of the ground every 17 years, they put us in touch again with some of the great mysteries of existence."