The 17-Year Cicadas Are Returning to the East Coast This Summer—and Yes, You Can Eat Them
Imagine if you'd been underground since the summer of 2004, and crawled out of the dirt this spring, wondering if that one guy was still hosting The Apprentice. That's basically the situation for the Brood X cicadas, which are expected to start pulling themselves out of the earth later this spring, and will make a short-lived—but undeniably loud—appearance on parts of the east coast.
It's also time for another round of reminders that yes, these particular insects are edible.
If it seems like you just had a cicada summer, that's because there are 15 recognized broods of periodical cicadas that emerge at different times, in different areas of the United States. This year's Brood X, also known as the Great Eastern Brood, will be scattered throughout 15 states and Washington, D.C.
"It's a delicacy that's rare," Isa Betancourt, an entomologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, told LancasterOnline. "They are arthropods, which means they have an exoskeleton. We regularly eat the arthropods of the sea and those are the shrimp, lobsters and crabs. And so cicadas are arthropods too."
Some cicada-eaters have said that they actually taste a little like shrimp, too, although the flavor has also been described as being reminiscent of asparagus or almonds. Others recommend seasoning them with Old Bay or other spice blends so that every bite just tastes like whatever you've sprinkled on their crunchy little bodies. "Most people like them deep fried and dipped in a sauce like a hot mustard or cocktail sauce," biologist and cicada expert Gene Kritsky told National Geographic in 2013. (At that time, he said his preference was putting a few blanched Brood II cicadas in a green salad.)
In 2016, the Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania topped chocolate chip cookies and butterscotch ice cream cones with a single Brood V cicada, and it also served an omelet filled with avocado, roasted veggies, and "Teriyaki cicadas."
And in The Periodical Cicada, written in 1898, author Charles Lester Marlatt recounts the story of a cicada stew. "The cicadas were collected just as they emerged from pupae, and were thrown in cold water in which they remained overnight," he wrote. "They were cooked the next morning and served at breakfast time. They imparted a distinct and not unpleasant flavor to the stew, but were not at all palatable themselves, as they were reduced to nothing but bits of flabby skin [...] The most palatable method of cooking is to fry in batter, when they remind one of shrimps."
If you're curious enough to give them a go, practiced insect-eaters recommend looking for freshly hatched cicadas, which are easier to find first thing in the morning. After collecting the insects, it's best to boil them for a few minutes, which both softens them up and can kill any fungus or bacteria that might be present. (It's an understandable concern: they have been underground for 17 years.) Drain the cicadas, remove any of their remaining legs and wings, and purists say they're good to go.
Some experts recommend that people with known shellfish allergies contact their doctors before eating cicadas, and it's also best to hand-harvest your cicadas from areas that have not been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Regardless, they're probably not the strangest thing that you'll eat this summer.
"Have you ever eaten an oyster or a clam out of the bay?" Mike Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland told LancasterOnline. "It lives on the bottom of the bay and filters you know what (feces). You'd eat this thing, but would not eat this delectable insect that's been sucking on plant fat for 17 years? I think it's weird."
That makes sense—although we're still not sold on the breakfast stew.