Food trends seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Omnivores, locavores, and now, the latest: invasivores. Their motto? If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
This weekend, invasivore anglers will battle it out at a snakehead fishing tournament in the Potomoc.
Locally, area chef Kris Sandholm plans to introduce the so-called 'Frankenfish' — named for its creepy looks and ability to survive out of water for days — to adventurous foodies in Philadelphia as early as next week.
'One of most aggressive things out there'
There are likely uglier things lurking behind the swinging doors of America's commercial kitchens. But perhaps none oozier than a snakehead fish just pulled from a bucket of ice.
“They're incredibly slimy,” said Sandholm, a who recently closed his seafood restaurant in Bethlehem, Pa., due to financial issues. Prior to closing, he regularly cooked up snakehead for his customers. “No matter how much you wash them off, they just seem to continue to reproduce this slime which is almost like motor oil.”
I visited his old kitchen one evening to watch how he turned the oozy fish into dinner.
The specimen he held in his hands was long and lean, almost like a fat eel, patterned like a python. It had a hole above one eye the size of a silver dollar, made by a hammer, he said, to make sure it was dead.
“It's one of the most aggressive things out there,” Sandholm said.
The snakehead is an invasive species, brought over from Asia for food and first confirmed in the wild in Maryland about a decade ago. Today, it is illegal to import or sell live snakeheads in Pennsylvania, and illegal to throw one back if you catch it. Sandholm said he had to call state authorities to make sure it was legal to transport already dead fish over state lines.
"The seafood purveyor was concerned that their truck driver could get in trouble," Sandholm said.
The fish is a voracious predator, which is exactly why Sandholm plans to put it on the menu at Supper, on South Street, where he now works.
“We need to eradicate the bastards,” Sandholm said. “The more that we can show that this is a delicious fish, people will actually want to buy it and then the fishermen will make an effort to actually catch it.”
Small but growing trend
Sandholm is not alone. He is one of a small but growing group of so-called 'invasivores' — those looking to put invasive plants and animals on dinner plates as a conservation strategy. In 2010, the ocean conservation group REEF released the Lionfish Cookbook in an attempt to manage the invasive fish that is proliferating in the Atlantic.
University of Vermont conservation biologist Joe Roman wrote a 2004 article for Audubon Magazine advocating eating invasives. A few years prior he was foraging off the coast of Maine, doing field work, when he saw someone collecting the common periwinkle, an invasive sea snail.
“It occurred to me, you know, there's no reason not to collect every one of these,” Roman said. “In fact you'd be doing all the natives a favor, and since then I started to advocate for it and a couple other folks started down that path as well."
Roman now runs a website called 'Eat the Invaders' that features recipes for invasive species and time lines of their arrivals in the U.S.
He is currently a Fulbright scholar in Brazil, but back home in Vermont, he likes to eat garlic mustard and invasive crabs.
Anglers recruited to protect native ecosystems
Bill Provenzano, who lives in Ridley, Delaware County caught a snakehead fish at Tinicum nature reserve recently. Fishermen like him are thought to have helped manage the snakehead population in South Philadelphia's FDR park.
"They're weird looking, when you first catch ‘em, you think you've got an alien or something,” Provenzano said. “I think they fight a little better than a bass, they're actually pretty fun to catch."
Still, Provenzano is skeptical fishermen like him could ever beat back the snakehead population.
"I don't think you're ever going to eat the snakehead fish into extinction,” he said.
Joe Roman argues it's not all that unrealistic, citing the example of oysters in the Chesapeake.
“Once they were uncountable, billions of them, and now they're ecologically pretty much gone,” Roman said. “Will a few of us who go out there and do that as foragers make that dent? It's unlikely, let's be honest, but if enough people do it we could certainly see some changes in the eco-system."
A creepy fish with a mild, neutral taste
I decided to taste for myself what the snakehead tasted like. Back at his kitchen in Bethlehem, Kris Sandholm grilled a file over a wood fire with just a little olive oil and kosher salt. He said anything stronger would overpower the fish.
“If you thought maybe a piece of cod was really mild or a piece of tilapia was really mild, those fish would be strong compared to what a snakehead tastes like,” Sandholm said. “It's got a nice soft texture, it's a really moist fish, and the flavor is almost non-existent.
The taste was mild, smoky and salty from the wood-fired grilling and not too much more.
Served on a bed of spiced quinoa and grilled asparagus, the fillet was much prettier to look at than the oozy specimen living in Sandholm's fridge.
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