In the suburbs of Chicago, armies of bizarre red-eyed bugs are emerging from nearly two decades of life underground. In the final days of their unusual life cycle, billions of 17-year-old cicadas will attach themselves to trees, buildings — just about anything — to mate, lay eggs and die. To most people, the clumsy, unattractive bugs with their deafening mating call are a nuisance.
But to cookbook author Marilyn Pocius, they're dinner.
"I didn't eat cicadas 17 years ago when they emerged, and I've regretted it ever since," she said as she chopped garlic for her grilled cicada marinade.
A kitchen full of friends who consider themselves "food adventurers" looked on.
Cicadas are commonly eaten in some parts of Africa and South America, but in the Chicago area, they are an exotic rarity.
"How many bottles of wine have aged for 17 years? How many cheeses?" Pocius asked "These things have aged for 17 years. It's fabulous."
Pocius is no stranger to unusual foods. Her book, "A Cook's Guide to Chicago," trumpets bizarre ingredients like edible paper, lily bulbs and chrysanthemum leaves.
"I truly do think that we should be more in touch with what we eat. And how much more in touch can you be? You don't even have to grow these," Pocius said, referring to the dish filled with squiggling cicadas on her countertop.
The insects she has collected are called "tenerils." They are cicadas that have emerged from the ground but have yet to shed their outer exoskeletons and fully develop wings. In this stage of development, the bugs are believed to be most tasty.
First, she and her friend David Hammond blanched the bugs in rapidly boiling water. Using a fork, Hammond then coated the cicadas with a light tempura batter, then flash-fried them. They snapped and sizzled inside a kettle of hot oil. Crispy and brown, he drained them on paper towels and awaited the moment of truth.
Pocius popped one in her mouth and closed her eyes to zero in on the taste. "They're good. Not scary at all. I really thought that they were going to be scarier than they are."
Hammond then did the same. "I found them woodsy and nutty at first -- kind of crunchy. And there was a creamy peanut butter taste underneath that was not unpleasant."
Hammond's wife, Carolyn, rolled some of the tempura cicadas into sushi, along with sticky rice, slivered carrots, some fresh chives and a splash of soy sauce.
Also on the menu were marinated grilled cicadas that Hammond said tasted like roasted peanuts.
For those who are willing to embark on this gastronomic challenge, scientists say cicadas are fairly nutritious. According to Rick Karban, an entomologist at the University of California at Davis, cicadas contain roughly the same amount of fat and protein as ham. Cicadas are also similar to shellfish. So, those with shellfish allergies are advised to steer clear.
For Pocius and her dinner guests, it was time to dig in. Holding glasses of cicada-tinis -- martinis garnished with fried cicadas on toothpicks rather than olives -- they raised a toast.
Want to cook up a batch of cicadas at home? Here are a few of Pocius' recipes:
In all recipes, blanch cicadas in rapidly boiling water for about three minutes until firm. Drain and refrigerate.
1. "Leaf Hopper" snow peas with herb cream cheese with cicada