Help to Purify America—With an Invasive Species Thanksgiving

The most patriotic feast involves consuming aliens.

Doubtlessly feeling patriotic, House Speaker John Boehner has again released his Thanksgiving turkey recipe, a concoction that promotes the dubious practice of brining a turkey overnight in a mixture of water, salt, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, and All-American maple syrup.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, no less of a patriot, won't have a turkey at all on his holiday table. A vegetarian for years, he recently went vegan. This, he admitted in an Instagram the other day, has its drawbacks: He still hadn’t figured out what to serve.

We have a better idea for both politicians, one that will send their guests home happy, defend against foreign invaders and insidious internal threats, and in the process help protect our nation’s natural resources. Let’s have an Invasive Species Thanksgiving. It's the most patriotic meal you can possibly prepare.

For ideas, we called up Hank Shaw, a reformed journalist who now is among the nation’s foremost authorities on foraging and cooking wild game and fish, and we added a few thoughts of our own. "Eating invasive species is something everyone should encourage," Shaw said, acknowledging that gathering them is not so easy as a fast spin through the grocery store. "And some of them taste pretty good."

First course: Nutria gumbo

Nutria are large aquatic rodents with horrid orange teeth. Fur dealers imported them in the early 20th century, and some have escaped.

The fruitful—and delicious—nutria.
The fruitful—and delicious—nutria.

Since they breed like rabbits, they swiftly spread across the Louisiana wetlands, gobbling up native plants, eroding river banks and squeezing out native species. Coastal erosion is a dramatic threat to the Louisiana marshes, one of the richest ecosystems on the continent; nutria are another.

Fortunately, these swamp rats taste good. Here’s celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern whipping up some nutria gumbo, a savory, spicy soup ideal for a first course. 

Fish course: Snakehead quenelles

The less said about snakeheads, the better. Suffice to say that they are nasty little buggers, ugly and voracious predators that infest the Potomac River flowing right past our nation's capital. Native to China, they’ve been found all along the East Coast.

Fortunately, they’re fun to catch on a rod and reel and pretty tasty besides. Many recipes call for steaming, frying or grilling, but for an elegant presentation you might try quenelles, a dumpling-like fish cake poached and served with lobster or crayfish sauce. Just substitute snakehead fillets for the pike.

The snakehead: Eat it before it eats you!
The snakehead: Eat it before it eats you!
The Washington Post

"I bet quenelles would work very well with the snakehead," Shaw said. "Instead of crayfish in the sauce, use the invasive green crab."

If you don’t have access to fresh snakehead, try an Asian carp, the terror of the Great Lakes, or lionfish, the scourge of the Atlantic seaboard.

Main Course: Roast Canada goose

The Canada goose isn’t really an invasive species, as it’s native to North America. But it’s certainly a pest. Ask any greenskeeper at a golf course. And there are plenty of them. An added benefit is that a single Canada goose from the giant subspecies can weigh 15 pounds, enough to feed a crowd. With a little care, they're great holiday fare.

Options: The lesser snow goose is even more of a pest than the Canada, reproducing feverishly and chomping through the Arctic tundra where they nest in the summer. They are so overpopulated that U.S. wildlife officials have instituted special hunting seasons during which they can be shot in unlimited numbers.

A lesser snow goose, standout of sky-to-table dining.
A lesser snow goose, standout of sky-to-table dining.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The ring-necked pheasant, possibly the favorite gamebird of American hunters, is another non-native species, having been imported to the U.S. in the 1880s from their native China by an America diplomat. They've been a festive, and appropriate, main course on many a holiday table. But pheasants are on the decline in the American Midwest because of changes in agriculture, tough winters, and the eradication of habitat.

Getting your goose may require you to buy a hunting license, a duck stamp, and a shotgun so you can shoot your own supper, or to find a hunting friend who will give you a bird or two. Think of it as a throwback to the first Thanksgiving—or did you think the Pilgrims bought their turkeys at Costco?

Sides: Kudzu, wild fennel cakes, dandelion salad

Kudzu, a vine planted in the South for erosion control, went wild, choking off trees, snaking through forests, and resisting all efforts to stop it. The battle is probably lost, but it reportedly makes a decent salad and can be cooked down like spinach or collard greens. Shaw won't vouch for it. "You're on your own," he said.

Originally from the Mediterranean, wild fennel is found all over North America. These cakes could easily substitute for your starchy mashed potatoes.  Another option is to braise wild fennel—"that's a gimme," Shaw said.

Those in temperate climes might find their holiday greens, like these dandelion leaves, in a roadside ditch.
Those in temperate climes might find their holiday greens, like these dandelion leaves, in a roadside ditch.
Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg News

Another idea from Shaw: "You could have a dandelion salad. They're not natives."

Dessert: Wild ginger ice cream, Himalayan blackberry compote

Wild ginger is another native, but the flavor is so good that we couldn't pass it up. And in China, its relatives are often used in traditional medicine. Here's Shaw's recipe.

Shaw's also a big fan of Himalayan blackberries, an import that went wild in the west. "More or less, they're the blackberries you buy in the store," he said. He suggested a compote; we found his recipe for blackberry sorbet.

 Happy Thanksgiving.

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