Fancy a sweet treat? Well, look no further than your local creeping vine — kudzu, to be exact. Or at least that’s what students in Jacob Barney’s biological invasives class learned this past semester. Kudzu was just one of several species the students learned about and concocted into entrées for an end of the semester project.
The class was an introduction as to why and how invasives become a dominant species in a given region, and send the original tenants of an area packing their bags not unlike the speed at which disgruntled hipsters take off after their “cool” neighborhood gets discovered by the unworthy masses.
And while it’s tempting to think of kudzu as a nasty, rude space invader, the truth is that like the majority of invasives, the plant that ate the South was in fact purposefully introduced in 1876. It later became part of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal and an integral component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Erosion Service’s plan to stabilize the nation’s soil quality in 1935.
“I wanted students to get a sense of why and how people move species around from this class,” said Barney, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The species we have now were introduced a long time ago, and it’s not always cut-and-dry as to whether or not these species are bad. It really depends on the eye of the beholder.”
So how do you eat kudzu (besides, of course, with a fork)? We aren’t talking about a kudzu salad in this instance. More like kuzu powder, as it’s known in Japan.
Student Elizabeth Gray used the invasive-derived ingredient in a delicious traditional Japanese dessert known as kuzomochi. Kuzu powder is used as a thickener in a gelatinous confection of roasted soy flour and brown sugar.
Other dishes made by the class included fried catfish, crawfish cornbread, rosehip jelly, caribou sausage, kangaroo chili (yes, they are invasive in Australia), and coffee cupcakes made from Arabica beans.
According to the Institute of Applied Ecology, invasive species cost the U.S. over $120 billion annually, and more than $1.4 trillion worldwide, with the annual cost of impact and control efforts equaling five percent of the world’s economy. Their website appliedecology.org, touts the motto, “eradication by mastication,” and features a cookbook called, “They’re Cooked: Recipes to Combat Invasive Species.”
Some herald eating invasives as a way to nosh ourselves out of an infestation of the out-of-control flora and fauna. But that is about as unrealistic as eating one bowl of Cheerios and expecting to get the same amount of fiber in that bowl as an all bran cereal. You would have to eat so many bowls it would be impractical, and also impossible, to ingest equal amounts of colon-cleansing matter, and also to eradicate invasives through regular food production and consumption.
So, what’s the point of eating invasives? As Barney’s class found out invasives are here to stay, but to steal a phrase from Celebrity Chef Alton Brown, they’re also good eats.