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You Can and Should Eat Cicadas—Here's How

Getty Images / TwoMeows; Wong Yu Liang

Across the Midwest and Southeast, trillions of periodical cicadas are emerging and clearing their throats for their SHWEEE-OO-WEE mating call, a white noise machine without an off button.

I am here to tell you that we are not helpless in the face of the horny cicada’s carnal screams. We can eat them.

Let’s bust one myth upfront: Cicadas aren’t crunchy. At least, they don’t have to be. Sure, you can chomp down on a fully grown cicada, exoskeleton and all. But the better culinary bet is to look for the tenerals—the pale, soft-bodied nymphal cicadas that have just abandoned their exoskeletons.

The good news? The next couple of weeks are the sweet spot for finding those newly emergent cicadas. While periodical cicadas typically emerge in late May, a relatively mild winter and warm spring means many nymphs are already crawling up a tree trunk near you.

Illinois is the epicenter of two of this year’s periodical cicada broods. So I called up Illinois state entomologist Chris Dietrich to ask if he’d considered eating them.

His review was not especially glowing. “Some people say they taste like canned asparagus, other people say they taste more like shrimp. To me, they taste like bugs.”

Still, Dietrich notes, if you’re going to taste a bug, there’s good reason to make it a cicada. Anyone who’s tried both grass- and grain-fed beef understands that an animal’s diet affects its taste. Crunch down on a leafeater like a grasshopper or cricket and you’re also crunching down on its half-digested plant matter. Cicadas, by contrast, suckle on heavily diluted tree sap, giving them a relatively mild flavor. 

How to Find Cicadas to Eat

Cicada harvesting follows horror movie logic: keep your head down and follow the screams. Although any noisemakers will be adults, you’re likely to find some nymphal cicadas in the same areas.

Emergent cicadas are most common in wooded areas, and they stay relatively close to the ground. Dietrich recommends looking around tree roots or trunks after sunset, when the tenerals first emerge, and watching as they shed their skins. But you can also try to catch them denuded just after sunrise. The adult cicada’s new exoskeleton take a few hours to harden, so use color as your guide: as the shells firm up, they’ll also turn dark. 

What to Avoid When Harvesting Cicadas

With cicadas, use the same caution you’d extend to any foraged ingredients, and avoid areas with likely soil contaminants or that are treated with pesticides and herbicides. For those in farm country, that means steering clear of any wooded areas adjacent to corn and soybean fields, which can be susceptible to pesticide drift.

Yes, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have found mercury levels in some periodical cicadas on par with tuna, but you’d need to house an awful lot of cicadas to reach an unsafe dose.

The biggest contamination threats are to the cicadas, not you. In recent years, periodical broods have been hijacked by a mysterious, metal-sounding fungus that transforms them into hypersexual flying “saltshakers of death.” Personally, I welcome the fungus, just based on the absurdity of its rock ‘n’ roll name. But if the idea makes you squeamish, know that it’s both nontoxic to humans and easy to avoid. Tenerals are less likely to be infected than adults, and the signs of infection aren’t subtle: “You would see almost what looks like a piece of chalk protruding from the base of the abdomen,” says John Vogel, a natural history biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

How to Prepare Cicadas

Freeze your cicadas in a bag overnight to kill them humanely, then wash them thoroughly to remove any dirt. Tenerals don’t require much prep, but if you’re cooking adult cicadas, you’ll want to remove the wings, much like you would peel a shrimp. (On the subject of shrimp: the FDA has warned against eating cicadas if you have a shellfish allergy. As arthropods, insects and shellfish contain some of the same muscle proteins that trigger shellfish allergies. In other words: shrimps is bugs.)

Snip off the heads if the beady little eyes bother you. Then par-boil them for two minutes to kill off any malingering microbes and give the meat a firm, even texture. Vogel, who sampled Brood XIX when they made their last debut 13 years ago, compares the texture of a par-boiled teneral to soft tofu.

From there, the only limit is your imagination (and your tolerance for tenerals). Try roasting them in a convection oven or air-fryer (how about swapping them for sprouts in Daniel Gritzer’s air-fryer Brussels sprouts with preserved lemon–Caesar dressing)? Marinate them like an artichoke and toss them on a pizza (Vogel’s preferred application). Velvet them and make Kung Pao Cicada.

Or follow the lead of Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream in Columbia, Missouri, and toss them in an ice cream. 

In 2011, when Brood XIX last emerged, a couple of employees collected some backyard cicadas and candied them, covered them in chocolate, and stirred them into a cicada ice cream.

When manager Tony Layson called the Health Department to check on the protocol for serving cicadas, their answer was a clear “don’t.” The store pulled the flavor. In its place, they put up a tongue-in-cheek sign stating the ice cream was sold out until 2024—the next year the 13-year brood was due to emerge.

“You know, I think when we put that sign up, I don’t think any one of us was planning on still being here,” Layson says. “But I’m still here, and now I have to reckon with that little sign.”

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