Biting Back

Help! Save the state by eating the invaders!

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Swamp rat—is it what’s for dinner?

Wouldn’t you know it but we’re in the midst of National Invasive Species Awareness Week (Feb. 23 to March 5), and Farm Burger in San Anselmo is marking the occasion with the introduction of a new treat on its sustainability-minded menu: the Chesapeake blue catfish sandwich with Bay fries.

The sando’s debuting on March 5 at the Marin County outpost of Farm Burger, a company founded outside of Atlanta in 2010 that now boasts nine restaurants, most of them in the South (North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia). A Berkeley Farm Burger in the Gilman District closed last October.

The blue catfish hasn’t invaded California, but the bottom-feeder has wreaked havoc on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the fish can get pretty darn big.

Farm Burger’s brass says in a statement that they’ve been looking to add a fishwich to their menu of burgers (they’ve got a popular veggie one, too) but wanted to make sure they weren’t contributing to the collapse of ocean fisheries while doing so. Enter the voracious and invasive blue catfish. The offering will feature some battered chunks of the fish topped with coleslaw and jalapeno peppers, and looks quite tasty. They’re doing their part.

But hey, given that it’s Invasive Species Awareness Week, and given that California’s got some invasive species of its own to contend with, how can we all do our part and eat the invaders? Here are a few options.

One of the more pernicious and politically charged of the California invaders is the grass carp, a standby fish in Asian dishes and also quite handy when it comes to eating aquatic plants, some of which are quite invasive in their own right.

The state’s got some heavy restrictions on the grass carp, and for decades has overseen a program where sterilized carp are used in plant-eating enterprises on private ponds and the like. The fish will occasionally be landed by anglers, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture says that if you do happen to catch one, to cut off its head and report the landing to the state. (While you’re at it, gut the fish, scale the fish, then go home and eat the fish.)

Another intriguing invasive beast that’s shown up on occasion around these parts is the freshwater pacu, related to the piranha but without the horror-movie reputation. The pacu is native to Brazil, but a freaked-out angler hooked one in Rohnert Park in 2015 and released it back to Roberts Lake lake without knowing what he’d caught—or without knowing about a very tasty recipe for grilled barbecue pacu ribs that I found at the Reluctant Gourmet website. Slather those pork-like ribs in a tangy barbecue sauce, and—voilà!—you’ve just saved the world! State researchers have reported pacu landings dating back to 1987 in the Russian River and in Marin’s Stafford and Alpine lakes. Go get yours.

Lastly, we come to the nutria. Yes, the nutria, a cute and furry swamp rat that’s sort of like a muskrat but that (apparently) tastes a little less greasy. The nutria is not native to the state of California, but late last year a pregnant female was discovered to the east and now there have been sightings in numerous inland counties—but so far, none has made its way to Marin. Nutria are all over the place in Louisiana and were sort-of popularized by the writer Calvin Trillin when years ago he wrote about New Orleans chefs who were offering nutria on the menu. One rendition has it go through the smoker and then shredded for a pulled-nutria po’ boy.

The nutria were introduced to California late in the 19th century for their fur potential, but the online histories of invasive species note that they never really took hold here. So the state’s a little unclear on how this latest batch of the rats arrived—since these are the first sightings in many decades—and has embarked on a voracious eradication campaign. The nutria destroy aquatic-based infrastructure with their burrowing, rat-like ways and are thus extremely unwelcome here. The problem is that the darn things breed like bunnies and—oh, no—are on the rise because of global warming, according to the science. What is to be done?

Nobody’s suggesting that Farm Burger work the nutria onto its menu (perhaps with a topping of invasive wakame?)—I’m just saying that there’s a restaurant in nutria-overrun Russia that puts out a pretty tasty looking rat burger that one can drool over online, if you’ve got the stomach for that sort of thing. For now, enjoy that catfish sandwich.

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