Sunday, May 4, 2008
Pests…and how to eat them
This dietary alternative is for people that don’t want to give up the meat in their diets, don’t have the option of raising their own animals*, yet want to lower their environmental footprint. Livestock takes a lot of energy and resources to raise, with such possible needs as heat lamps, incubators, bedding, pens, fences, food, water, and veterinary care. Even if materials are cheap or free, one’s time must be invested in the animals’ care (and eventual slaughter).
Personally, I think folks would be better off eating lower on the food chain, gaining better health, more money, and more time. However, I'm realistic enough to know that’s not going to happen, so I want to offer this guide to cheap sustainable meat in an economically depressed, post carbon world. Think of it as useful knowledge to have just in case. If you do raise your own livestock, spread the word about these alternatives. It may just keep the hungry family down the street from stealing your chickens in the middle of the night.
Pests are part of the ecosystem, whether they are native species or ones that were introduced. Many introduced species thrive in disturbed areas, and humans are good at disturbing areas, which means they are likely to run into these pests from time to time. It may be in the house, the shed, the garden, or somewhere out on the back forty. While there are folks who carefully capture and gently relocate such pests, this tactic has its own problems. If the pest doesn’t return to their property, it may simply become a nuisance on someone else’s property or or it may die. The relocated pest faces hazards from the pests already in residence that may kill it to protect their own territory, or the relocated critter may starve to death because it is unable to learn where the food sources are in its new home.
Often, though, humans kill the pests outright. It may be a visceral reaction to seeing the snake lying on the path, disgust at seeing rat droppings in the grain, or frustration with the snails in the garden. While this solves the immediate pest problem, it creates a disposal problem and wastes resources. You can't throw the dead pest in your backyard compost pile. If tossed in the trash, the stench may be overwhelming before the garbage man takes it away. Burying, while it may give your fruit trees a growth spurt, requires a pretty deep hole.
There’s also the issue of wasted life. Why not be resourceful and eat the meat? After all, this solves two problems at once. You rid yourself of most of the pest and you get a free dinner. No careful coddling of chicks, rationing of grains, milking day and night, or using land as pasture instead of garden. Of course, you may have unintentionally fed this pest from your grain stores or garden, but this has the advantage of helping it qualify as local, free-range and organic (assuming you’ve used organic principles on your land). Pests could be the future's ultimate green meat!
Now, bear in mind that I am not advocating full-scale slaughter of all the critters on your property. That would be counter-productive as some animals, such as snakes, help keep other pests in check and are an important part of the natural ecosystem around you. I suspect many people, however, are more likely to kill a rattlesnake in their yard than let it roam free. Introduced species, such as pigeons, some of the garden snails, and the Norway rat, are fair game, and won’t require a hunting license.
Some pests may indeed be protected by law, even though they are on your property. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, for instance, protects all migratory birds in the U.S. Migratory birds are the species that breed in one area and spend their winters in another. This includes game birds, such as quail, doves, and ducks, which can be legally hunted with a license issued by state agencies. These birds are generally not considered pests.
Three non-native non-migratory species, however, are not protected by law: house sparrows, European starlings, and rock doves, also known as your common dirty city pigeon that poops on everything. If these birds nest or roost in your barn, you will soon find yourself cursing at the mess they leave. They may destroy your garden or peck holes in your grain sacks, enjoying the lovely buffet you’ve left for them. It’s time to take action.
If things really crash badly, pigeons may well become the urban chicken of the future. They are large and meaty, plentiful, and quite stupid. They quickly become used to free food, flocking into yards where bread crumbs or cheap seed are scattered on a regular basis. A simple drop trap constructed from a cardboard box, stick, and piece of string could net a person an easy dinner. Set the box up for a while to give the birds time to become accustomed to it. To make it easier to retrieve your dinner, you can cut a flap in the top of the box as demonstrated here. If this sounds too primitive for you, there are fancy professional traps available.
Think eating a dirty city pigeon sounds disgusting? Probably, but if you’re starving, your criteria changes pretty rapidly. And remember, the squab that are raised for sale as food are simply young pigeons. You can raise your own, but again, why go to so much work when you can simply trap as needed. You should, of course, use appropriate caution to avoid exposure to avian flu or psitticosis. The practical hygiene recommended for processing wild birds is not really any more stringent than one should practice processing any animal products in their kitchen. Cleaning the bird is a fairly straightforward process. And you’ll have no trouble finding recipes to prepare your catch. For those concerned about tracking nutrients, you can check out the nutritional data for pigeon as well as other wild game.
The concept of eating pests is not a new one. Almost a century ago, a US Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin advocated using house sparrows as a food source in "The English Sparrow As A Pest" by Ned Dearborn, Assistant Biologist. Farmer's Bulletin #493, US Dept of Agriculture, April 20, 1912. The sparrows can be trapped and held in cages until ready to eat, although the hungry birds will consume considerable food themselves. They can be prepared and cooked in the same way as any small game bird, although they are said to be particularly good when boned, broiled, buttered, and served on toast. Rather than hold them in cages and have to feed them, why not just trap them as needed?
Starlings can also be served on toast. They are a little bigger than the sparrows but not as big as pigeons, which may be why the old nursery rhyme called for a couple dozen in one pie. Try roasting them or serving them in a stew if you don't want to deal with making pie crust from scratch.
Rodents in your food supply can be a disaster. They eat away at your stores, poop in your food, carry fleas with disease, and attract snakes. Two futuristic films show people depending on rats as their primary source of meat. Sylvester Stallone scarfs down a tasty grilled ratburger in Demolition Man, and the children chase and catch rats for dinner in the apocalyptic Terminator II movie. You don’t have to wait until things are that rough to eat your rats, though. And don't forget about mice. Farley Mowat, the naturalist assigned to study wolves and made famous by the movie, Never Cry Wolf, found that mice were a pretty good source of protein.
In the book, When All Hell Breaks Loose, Cody Lundin recommends standard mouse and rat traps to take care of pantry pests. One concern with rodents is fleas that may be carrying diseases such as hantavirus or plague. He has found that fleas leave the host as the body grows cold so that by morning there’s generally no sign of the insects. It might be best to set traps away from areas with household pets as you don’t want the fleas to find an easy alternative host! Cody recommends examining your quarry carefully to make sure it looks healthy. If the critter looks like it may have been diseased, toss it - better safe than sorry. Read the Centers for Disease Control pages (and the links they provide) before embarking on your new rodent diet.
Prepping mice for dinner is pretty easy. You can toss the whole mouse into the coals to let the fire singe off the fur. When the body swells from the pressure, tear open the stomach area and remove the intestines and any droppings. Finish cooking on the coals until crispy and chewy, but not so long it turns into charcoal. Due to their larger body mass (and more meat!), rats will need to be gutted and cleaned before cooking. Wearing gloves is a prudent precaution against contamination. Although you can just cook them on a grill like chicken, gourmet survival chefs might want to check out other recipes.
If you think this all sounds like way too much work for a little protein, check out this video from National Geographic. These fellows are willing to spend an hour digging out their native rats, which they claim are more tasty and tender than antelope.
If you are overrun with rodents and unwilling to eat them, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up with snakes. I love snakes so I don’t want you to think I’m advocating that you kill every snake you see. (If you do, I guarantee you’ll soon be overrun with rodents!) However, I’m well aware that many folks are not going to let poisonous snakes roam free on their property. If you’ve decided to kill it, you might as well eat it. Note: in my state, and quite possibly others, hunting with the intent to kill rattlesnakes requires a general hunting license. There are plenty of recipes online for snake and rattlesnake; remember to always exercise caution while dealing with the head and fangs!
Has all this talk of killing living breathing cuddly critters made you a bit squeamish? Let’s take a look at some of the not-so-cuddly pests you may encounter. You’ve probably killed some of these in the past but never considered eating them. Rather than waste your home-brewed beer on the snails in your garden, collect them for dinner. You’ll have to wait for two weeks while you purify them in case they’ve consumed any nasty chemicals, but then you’ll have a free meal of escargot. Invite your friends!
Unlikely to appeal to many people except in the most dire starvation scenario, another dinner option is spiders. Tarantulas are quite popular in Cambodia, sold as snacks along the road. When fried, they are crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, with a nice delicate white meat in the body. Although you are not likely to find more than one or two in your yard, keep in mind that eating too many at once may leave you hacking up little spider fur balls. For guidance on how to prepare and eat them, check out this instructional video. And, of course, be cautious of similar-looking spiders that are deadly, such as the funnel-web spider in Australia!
*One cheaper and easier option for raising your own protein is microlivestock. This fact sheet will get you started on the best choices when it comes to using insects as human food.
Would I eat any of these things? Honestly, probably not, but then again, I eat a vegan diet already. However, I would consider feeding some of these pests to my dog in the future if I had no other choice. Bon appetit!
Fried Bugs by jcandeli at flickr.com
Spiced squab by weaponofchoice at flickr.com
Black rat raider by Vermin Inc at flickr.com
Spider, anyone? by Jom D at flickr.com