Picture it: 2004, late spring. Newly arrived in southern Ohio, I watched our mixed-breed dog, Delphine, slowly eating her way across our back yard like a cow methodically grazing in a field.
“What is she eating?” I wondered.
I realized, with a combination of horror and fascination, that she was eating cicadas.
Brood X, one of the largest of the 15 periodical cicada broods in the U.S., had recently awakened from its 17-year underground slumber. Locals and media described the event as a cicada apocalypse or cicada-palooza.
Billions of cicadas emerge during these cycles, as many as 1.5 million per acre. To venture outside is to be assailed by helicopter-type insects as they slam against your head, cling to your clothing, inadvertently venture under your shirt and climb on your neck as you’re driving.
Looking under the deck in 2004, we had seen the appearance of a series of tall, thin, muddy chimneys. Resembling a scene from the 1979 film “Alien,” in which deadly extraterrestrial baby bug-like creatures slumbered in vertical pods, the cicadas were burrowing their way out of the soil.
These bugs, however, were not evil extraterrestrials; they were simply lunch. It turns out, they are a tasty, high-protein treat for dogs, cats, birds, squirrels, raccoons and sometimes even humans.
After watching Delphine and wild creatures gorge on the bounty in 2004, my husband John took to calling the insects “the other white meat,” referring to a 1990s-era advertising campaign promoting pork.
And they’re coming back this year.
When the soil temperature reaches about 64 degrees in the next few weeks, Brood X cicadas will surface in parts of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, D.C. and New York.
Anticipating this year’s cicada occupation, I began to wonder if our Indigenous ancestors also feasted on this protein bounty.
Cicadas are big, more than an inch long, with a wingspan of 3-4 inches and bright red eyes.
Despite their impressive appearance, however, they are harmless. Clumsy and slow, they fling themselves at every available vertical surface, including humans, as they fulfill their life’s mission - to mate, lay eggs and die.
Male cicadas attract their mates through sound, using drum-like tymbals on the sides of their abdomens. Their mating calls, loud whirring sounds, can reach 80 to 100 decibels - the sound of a loud lawnmower or motorcycle.
Females drill holes into tree branches where they lay their eggs. The eggs hatch into nymphs that fall from the trees and burrow underground, living off the sap of tree roots. The whole process of emerging, mating and egg-laying lasts about six weeks. Then they stay underground for 17 years before starting the cycle over again.
Scientists say the periodic cicada broods emerge in such great numbers as a survival strategy called predator satiation. Even voracious predators can’t eat them all.
It even has a name – entomophagy, the consumption of insects.
And though there are few specific examples of our ancestors eating cicadas, many Indigenous peoples have and continue to include insects in their diets.
“Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and mineral content,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “The nutritional value of edible insects is highly variable because of the wide range of edible insect species.“
A 2013 paper, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security,” estimates that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people.
And though the paper notes there is a degree of distaste in some societies for the consumption of insects, the bugs offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries.
Exploring new options
Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, the founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, a nonprofit that brings access and awareness to Indigenous education and foods, wants to offer insects on the menu of his next restaurant.
“We have all sorts of amazing, diverse proteins across North America,” Sherman said. “If you’re looking at food from an Indigenous perspective, you really have to include insects.”
In addition to the organization’s Indigenous Food Lab, Sherman plans to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in May called Owamni, Sioux for falling water, in Minneapolis.
During his research, Sherman found tribes in the Great Plains, Great Basin and the Four Corners region that included insects in their diets.
“Edible insects such as grasshoppers are still used in Mexico today; the history of colonialism has stripped away our Indigenous foods, depicting them as inferior,” he said.
“People should be open to exploring protein options beyond cows, chicken and pigs. It’s a great conversation to have. Insects can taste good if you know how to prepare them.”
Insects can be ground into meal and baked into bread, or sauteed and served whole, Sherman said. But he’s still unsure which insects will be included in the upcoming Owamni menu; a lot depends on what is available commercially.
But what about cicadas?
It turns out there’s a tragic and beautiful story of how cicadas saved the lives of citizens of the Onondaga Nation of New York long ago.
For the Onondaga, eating cicadas is a sacred act, an important way to memorialize and honor their ancestors, according to Betty Lyons, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation who is executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to building tribal capacity and self-determination.
Lyons said Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army led a campaign in 1779 to destroy the Six Nation’s homelands in revenge for Native raids carried out against American loyalists in New York and Pennsylvania. The Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora are part of the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee confederacy.
The destruction of Haudenosaunee homelands was called the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign. The goal of the expedition was to destroy Six Nations villages and food supplies, thereby thwarting any attempt at self-defense and forcing the tribes to seek peace with the Americans.
“They (the Americans) wanted our lands and resources,” Lyons said. “Washington wanted to obliterate us.”
The memory of that time is so indelible that even today the Onondaga call every U.S. president by the same name they called Washington after his campaign of destruction - Hanadaga’yas, or destroyer of villages.
With their crops and food destroyed, the Onondaga faced starvation. But an unlikely ally came to the rescue, the emergence of the 17-year periodical cicadas.
“It was a terrible time for our people,” Lyons said. “Our ancestors ran into the forest in order to survive.
“But then they heard this beautiful humming noise. It was the children who said, ‘Listen, they’re telling us they’re here to save us.’ And it was the children who told the people to eat the cicadas.”
‘A way to give thanks’
And so, ever since that terrible time in 1779, the Onondaga celebrate the arrival of Brood VII, the cicadas that emerge in their region every 17 years. The insects last appeared in New York in 2018.
“It’s kind of a big deal when the cicadas come. Our families collect them. Some people cook and eat them as a way to give thanks and recognize all that our ancestors sacrificed for us,” Lyons said.
“Everybody tries to eat at least one. I like them raw; I don’t need to cook them. Some people sauté them in butter and garlic.”
The story is part of an oral tradition that has been passed down for generations, Lyons said.
“We try to share the knowledge with our children,” she said. “These beautiful cicadas saved our people from all that destruction and oppression. Since then we’ve maintained our own government and way of life all these years.”
Although eating periodical cicadas has grown popular among some adventurous foodies, I have no plans to dine on them myself.
But, since hearing about how they saved the Onondaga so long ago, I will never look at the ungainly insects in the same way.
I’m reminded that these sorts of cyclical events are a time to give thanks, to recognize and celebrate the great mystery, even if it flies in the face – literally – of what is familiar and comfortable in our modern existence.