When Chicago Braced for the Onslaught of the 17-year Cicada

About the middle of May, the editor was interviewed at length (four times) by feature writer Larry Weintraub of the Chicago Sun-Times for a lengthy article called “Food for Thought” which was to appear in the Sunday, May 27th edition of the Sun-Times. The article was about the use of insects as food around the world, and it was to serve as sort of a centerpiece for two shorter articles by Weintraub. It soon became apparent that all of this was part of a massive effort to prepare Chicagoans for the impending appearance of the 17-year cicada.

One of Weintraub’s articles provided information on the life-cycle of the cicada and announced the existence of the CICADA HOTLINE which would be logging calls 24 hours a day. The second article began: “Millions of tasty, entrees-if-you-dare will be available for the gathering during the next month in northern Illinois, and some Chicagoans will want to know how cicada fanciers prepare them.” It provided some recipes (see insert). The article recalled that Peter Kranz, a paleontologist and Washington, D.C., schoolteacher, served cicadas to hundreds of his students in the nation’s capital three years ago when the noisy insects emerged there. “Most kids say they taste like french fries, popcorn and chicken,” reported Kranz, who covered sauteed cicadas with cinnamon for breakfast and garlic and butter for snacks. Weintraub also quoted University of Chicago ecology professor Monte Lloyd that raw cicadas are of excellent flavor, tasting like raw potatoes sprinkled with avocado or clam.

A few pages away in the Sun-Times was another article entitled, “Spray’s no way to greet cicadas,” by Scott Fomek. Fomek had marshalled a bevy of experts, mostly entomologists from the Field Museum and the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, whose advice, in summary, was relax and don’t spray. “As soon as you mention spraying, people will be out there with flame throwers and bazookas,” said Daniel Summers at the Field Museum, who added that people who spray are bigger pests than the noisy cicadas. Since so many other animals–birds, racoons, and even people–eat cicadas, spraying contaminates a food source, Summers said. Adverse effects on beneficial insects were also mentioned.

Recognizing that egg-laying, in which incisions are made in twigs, can do damage to young deciduous trees, the Chicago experts nevertheless played it cool. “Frankly, we at the Botanic Garden don’t think it is anything to worry about,” said Meegan McCarthy-Bilow, horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “For the larger trees it’s been described as just a natural pruning,” said John Wagner, Field museum biologist “Just sit back and enjoy one of the most spectacular events the animal kingdom has to offer,” said Phil Parrillo, a Field Museum entomologist. The consensus advice was that if you have a particularly valuable young tree, with trunk less than 1 1/2 inches across, wrap the top with cheese cloth or some other

gauzelike fabric that lets in air and light (don’t use plastic) and tie it below the first branches. This will prevent egg-laying.
Apparently, however, not everybody in Chicagoland was as cool and reasoned as the writers and experts we’ve cited above. The May 30th Wisconsin State Journal (Madison newspaper) front-paged a story, date-lined Chicago: “This city is going bonkers over bugs. There are nightly updates on the TV news, recipes in the newspaper, even a special hotline heralding not the coming of the apocalypse, but the emergence of inch-long critters called cicadas …. The noisy devils unearth themselves every 17 years to mate, shriek incessantly,

Here are a few recipes from cicada gourmets:
1) Marinate cicadas in Worcestershire sauce at least one hour. Dip in egg, then in flour or breadcrumbs. Deep-fry and serve with soy or cocktail sauce.

2) Place cicadas on cookie sheet and roast for 10 to 15 minutes at 225 degrees. When dry grind coarsely and use as nut substitute in bread or on ice cream. A finer grind can be mixed 50:50 with flour to make a high-protein dough.

3) Drop cicadas briefly in boiling water. Coat with red pepper, garlic and ground bay leaf.

4) Stir-fry with garlic, ginger and bite-sized vegetables.

Newly hatched cicadas, called tenerals, are considered best for eating because their shells have not hardened. After that happens, the wings and legs should be removed before cooking.
Larry Weintraub

Chicago Sun-Times

and drive homeowners crazy… The cicadas have reached Elmhurst’, a broadcaster announced in a teaser for a recent television newscast …. The orgy should be over by early July, and experts say the creatures are harmless. But that hasn’t calmed the hysteria.” By now, one of the resident Chicago experts cited above was showing signs of exasperation. “It’s completely unfounded,” said entomologist Parrillo. “People are going out and getting insecticide to spray on them, but they’re only going to be here for a few weeks. Gee whiz, don’t worry about it.” Parrillo was blaming the news media for helping create “cicada mania.”

Time magazine (June 4, page 57) also got into the act with a short article headed “First Crunch, Then Munch.” It warned of “zillions” of “five-eyed, frail-winged critters, shedding their skins, singing like drunken maniacs, and mating with an abandon that renders the word orgy insufficient …. As the city waited for the bugs to buzz forth last week, the insects became the talk of the town.” Then, Time provided its own recipe: dip cicadas in batter and fry until golden brown. Serve with cocktail sauce or sour cream, or use as a pizza topping.

The plethora of recipes that appeared indicates that, for some reason, Americans consider cicadas, unlike most insects, as almost respectable food. Maybe, some day, a predicted periodical cicada emergence will automatically call for a community festival. The cicadas would provide not only the food, but also the music. The 1990 emergence extended (but barely) into southern Wisconsin, and one of our students, John Snell, harvested part of the crop at Lake Geneva. Roasted, the flavor was “meaty” and delicious. Surprisingly, with the tenerals (newly emerged from the soil) it really did prove to be unnecessary to remove the wings and legs. The next issue of the Newsletter will contain a short article on the identity, distribution, and predictability of cicada emergences in North America.