If you can’t beat them, eat them. That’s the approach Forage is taking to invasive species, one of five major forces threatening around 1 million animal and plant species with extinction according to the United Nations.
Earlier this month, the Cambridge eatery hosted its first “Eat Your Invasives” dinner, a multicourse feast featuring invasive species like garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and Asian carp.
“People oftentimes want this rare thing that has some form of luxury to it because it’s hard to get,” said Tyler Akabane, a local forager who provided some of the evening’s produce. “But there’s a lot of ingredients that aren’t hard to get that have their own deliciousness to them.”
Indeed, invasives are everything delicacies typically aren’t: abundant, unwanted, and sometimes literally thought of as garbage. The National Wildlife Federation, for instance, recommends “remov[ing] any invasive plants in your garden” and “report[ing] any sightings to your county extension agent or local land manager.”
Around Massachusetts, some towns organize annual “garlic mustard pulls,” where volunteers extract and dispose of the species. Dedham even declared the plant its “least wanted.”
But while they don’t belong in your garden, invasives could make a great addition to your plate, said Stan Hilbert, owner and general manager at Forage.
“I live in Dedham . . . they have these signs where it’s ‘garlic mustard pull season’ and I guess they all gather around one weekend or something and pull all the garlic mustard,” Hilbert said. “It’s like, ‘Well, what are you guys gonna do with that? You could, you know, you could eat it.’ ”
All it takes to declare an invasive delicious is the spirit of a child (or grown-up writer) who might think a dandelion is beautiful or includes Pluto in a mobile even though it’s technically not a planet anymore. It’s seeing something for what it could be, not how it’s been labeled.
And though his restaurant clearly labels the ingredients it’s using on the menu, even the tiniest shift in setting can leave diners disoriented, Hilbert said.
“It’s a great conversation with our guests,” he said. “They come to Forage and they think, ‘Oh, Japanese knotweed. What the hell is that?’ [and they realize] ‘Oh I have that in my backyard! It’s the worst.’ And they joke about it and they’ll always remember eating Japanese knotweed for the first time and maybe go try it at home.”
Beneath the soil that garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed and dozens of other invasives threaten, Forage exists in what is essentially a cozy basement. The sills are lined with house plants (mostly native species), and the combination of partial walls and low ceilings make the space rife with nooks.
Tuesday’s omnivore menu included five possible courses: dandelion greens, garlic mustard noodles, smoked Asian carp, Bayley Hazen cheese, and lilac scones.
Served with a fried egg, plantain colcannon, garlic mustard root cream, and garlic mustard dill pickles, the Asian carp was easily the night’s best offering. It’s sort of like tilapia but richer, and paired with the fried egg it actually tasted like bacon.
“Asian carp is inexpensive. It’s a relatively healthful fish,” said Eric Cooper, Forage’s chef. “It’s a good eating fish, but there’s nobody up here locally who carries it, so now we’re bringing it from Kentucky . . . and I’m hoping that maybe by doing this, maybe I can talk to my normal fish purveyor and get them to start carrying it regularly.”
It goes without saying that a single diner or meal or restaurant isn’t going to eradicate an invasive species. But the hunger of a market, Cooper said, could take a sizeable bite.
“I think we’ve proved really good at eating things to death,” Cooper said. “So if you look at something like Asian carp or lionfish down in Florida, if we can develop a fishery for that and develop a market for that and get people curious and interested in eating it, then I think we could actually make a very serious difference.”
Whole Foods, Cooper said, already carries lionfish “fairly regularly” and is starting to offer Asian carp “a bit more regularly.” And if Asian carp is anything like Japanese knotweed, it could swim into the mainstream sooner rather than later.
“Some stuff we used when we opened Forage or before at Ten Tables, we would start using Japanese knotweed and nobody [else] would use it,” Hilbert said. “But little by little, we start seeing it on menus around. All the other invasives, people are starting to use [them] more. So it is working.”