Shortly after Josanna Berg-Hammond finished filling a seaweed sushi roll with carrots, green onion, wasabi, pickled plum puree, and deep-fried cicadas, the phone rang.

It was one of her friends from school who wanted to know if it’s OK to cook dead cicadas from off the ground.

A question like that only comes around every 17 years, and who better to call than Josanna’s father, David Hammond, who appeared on television and radio recently to talk about his adventures hunting and eating cicadas.

“Usually, if a cow dies of natural causes, they don’t process that meat,” he offered in answer to the aforementioned query. “If I’m hunting for cicadas, they’ve got to be moving. Just like with lobster, when you’re picking one, you want it to be lively.”

Pour instant celebrity mix in a bowl, add water, and you’ll get Hammond, a local freelance writer who has quickly become the area’s cicada-eating expert.

An afternoon snack

Hammond, a 22-year Oak Park resident, invited Wednesday Journal into his home Friday afternoon for a chance to sample the little brown-shelled periodical cicadas.

He gathered the “amber jewels” from trees on Chicago Avenue in River Forest and “parboiled” them in a pot for about five minutes to help get rid of any dirt and bacteria. Hammond went for cicadas fresh out of the ground because they’re soft and tender, comparing them to veal or suckling pig.

For effect, Hammond pulled a Ziploc bag of shelled cicadas from his fridge, still alive and writhing about. The coolness slows their maturation, keeping them from popping out of their exoskeleton.

He felt a little squeamish at first about gathering them from the wild, but it didn’t take long to squelch his uneasiness.

“After the first two or three, it’s like ‘hey, cover my body with ’em,” he said, laughing.

Hammond feels a little guilty about eating something that’s been sleeping underground for 17 years and just wants to mate, but he said hunting them brought an “electric feeling” and he now has a great respect for cicadas after witnessing their lifecycle.

The centerpiece dish served was “cicada nori rolls,” which he and his wife, Carolyn Berg, invented. Mixed with rice, the rolls featured freshly emerged cicadas, still in their shell, which were dipped in a simple flour, water and egg batter and dropped into a mini deep-fryer filled with bubbling peanut oil.

Berg said her favorite way to eat them is just fried and battered with a little salt, like popcorn shrimp.

“If you want to get the flavor of them without having to look them in the eye, this is the best way to do it,” she said. “I realize it’s totally irrational, but if they’re covered in batter, I don’t have to look at them.”

They also prepared “cicadas on a stick,” a variation of ants on a log, with a cicada fried “commando style”-without any batter-plopped on top of a piece of celery with blueberry jam, to mimic the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I find that the cicada has kind of a peanut-buttery backtaste or sesame oil,” Hammond said. “The predominating flavor you get is kind of a woody, nuttiness.”

Finally, there was battered cicada on top of an endive leaf (a bitter lettuce) with a glob of goat cheese.

Frying is the preferred cooking method for Hammond.

“When you cook cicada in a moist-type medium, you kind of up the yuck-factor on them,” he said. “It’s probably more desirable to have cicada that’s fried, because then you’re taking advantage of the unique culinary characteristics.”

He said the cicada is high in protein and you want to highlight the crispiness of the exoskeleton by frying the bug with fat, which carries flavor.

On a previous occasion, the family made “cicada sunrises,” a variation of the tequila drink, with a boiled cicada on a toothpick stuck in the beverage.

When they’re not dining on cicadas, Hammond does freelance writing about food as well as writing and developing for corporations; Berg teaches at both Oak Park middle schools; and Josanna, the youngest of three daughters, is finishing up her senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Emerging edibles

It all began a couple weeks ago, when an Associated Press writer approached Hammond about the subject after reading comments he had posted on a Chicago food chat site called LTH Forum. There, Hammond had talked with friends about somehow cooking cicadas.

Media outlets ate the AP article up, as it was published by Comcast, the Chicago Tribune and on the front pages of Yahoo News and MSNBC.

Hammond received an invitation to appear on “Good Morning America,” which he accepted. Subsequent interviews followed with Los Angeles’ KMX Radio, the ABC local news, Chicago’s WLS-AM, Canadian Public Radio and “Chicago Tonight.”

“‘Cause it’s weird,” Hammond explained, speculating about why cooking up bugs has caused such a media frenzy. “It’s not often that you see an incredible natural event like this. If the predictions are true, this is going to be an awesome display of insect life in the Midwest.”

According to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, upwards of 130,000 cicadas will emerge-per acre-in Northern Illinois. Others say the emergence is much greater.

Hammond is disheartened by, in his view, how the media tends to portray bug-eating as “crazy,” when people in all different parts of the world consider insects a delicious delicacy.

“It’s not dangerous in any way,” he said (unless you’re allergic to shellfish). “You just have to overcome your own preconceptions about what food is.”

One of those parts of the world is Japan, where eating the rice grasshopper is popular. After Wednesday Journal, next up for Hammond is the Japanese Nippon Television Network, which is scheduled to appear at a cicada-themed barbeque at a friend’s house.

In initial conversations with Nippon, Hammond said it’s obvious they’ve never been to the Midwest or heard much about periodical cicadas.

“They had asked if there was anywhere one could go to escape the sound of cicadas,” Hammond said with a chuckle. “Also, what kind of netting might one wear on one’s face or neck to keep the cicadas from perching there?”

Expanding horizons

Hammond is glad he had the chance to eat cicadas and share the tasty bug with others, but what’s more important to him is the opportunity to expand peoples’ minds and force them to do something out of the ordinary.

“It’s good when people step outside their comfort zone and try food that they haven’t had before because if you’ll try a food you’ve never had before, maybe you’ll start talking to a person you’ve never talked to before; you’ll read a book you hadn’t thought to read,” he said. “It’s just a way of stepping outside the boundaries of the usual. I think that’s a good thing to do.”

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