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2019 Invasive Species Cook-Off

Guest Author | 07/16/2019 | Culinary Events, Family Friendly, Summer

Eradication by Mastication: The Institute for Applied Ecology's Invasive Species Cook-Off

Near the end of summer, the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) in Corvallis, Oregon, holds a peculiar culinary fundraiser event in Willamette Valley wine country. Typically, when you think of the kind of pairings you might see on the menu at vineyards in the area, you might think of cheese and crackers. However, at the IAE's Invasive Species Cook-off, area conservationists gather to share their dishes of bullfrog legs, red swamp crawfish, starlings, Eurasian collared doves and nutria. For those that can't stomach eating the flesh of such critters, there's vegetarian options that include things like dandelion greens and purslane. For those with a sweet-tooth, the plethora of possibility with blackberries is almost infinite. Wash it all down with one of the amazing invasive potions, such as Matt Bahm's Purple Varnish Clam Stout or Mousa Diabat's French-style Queen Anne's Lace Saison. If you're not ready (or of age) to get off the wagon, then there's a non-alcoholic category of entries like Joel Rea's blackberry soda or Rodrigo Valle's strawberry mint kombucha. There's a little something for everyone.

The IAE was founded in 1999, so this will be a 20th anniversary celebration for the organization. Melanie Gisler, an ecologist at IAE, spawned the concept for the event 8 years ago, and is now the director of an expanded Southwestern office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that opened in 2015. The crew has grown to include a diverse group of over 30 staff members with expertise in habitat management, experimental design, restoration, education and planning. 

Randy Bonner cooking walleye tacos on site at the 2018 Invasive Species Cook-Off at Harris Bridge Vineyards, near Corvallis, Oregon.Randy Bonner cooking walleye tacos on site at the 2018 Invasive Species Cook-Off at Harris Bridge Vineyards, near Corvallis, Oregon.Last year was my first time attending and participating in the event, at Harris Bridge Vineyards in Wren. I called ahead in advance to ask what dishes had received honors in the past, not only to know what not to copy, but what kind of themes captured the attention of the judges. I wanted to go for broke and see how many invasive species I could fit into one bite. I chose to go with a taco as my vessel, because who doesn't love tacos? They're also gluten free and I'm not much of a baker. 

The focus of my invasive species was Walleye. The species was first discovered in Banks Lake in 1960 and has since spread through the Columbia River and its tributaries as far as Dexter Reservoir southeast of Eugene. In 2015, regulations on warm water species (like walleye and bass) were amended to remove slot and bag limits, among controversy from anglers who target them, and anglers who target the salmon and steelhead that are at risk of being consumed by these species as smolts. However, as Wiman mentioned in regards to consuming invasives and our role in removing them, it's debatable whether or not those regulations actually have any impact on either population.

I battered the filets in Zatarain's fish fry and dropped them in the grease on site at the event, then left them to dry on paper towels. Placing a corn tortilla in the skillet, I covered it with shredded cheese, and then my slaw made with cabbage, red onion, lime juice, and invasive dandelion greens. Once the cheese was melted and the slaw began to wilt, I placed a piece of fried walleye in the taco and topped with a blackberry jalapeno salsa, and garnished with sautéed purslane.

As I watched others bring in casserole dishes covered in aluminum foil and unplugged crockpots, I realized that maybe I had gone a little overboard, cooking everything on site. Who likes a cold taco though? Either way, I had a friend carry over a plate with a taco to each of the judges as I continued to cook tacos for the guests until they were all gone. As the dishes were being judged, I did a lap around the table and decided to try a few items myself. The red swamp crawfish mac and cheese was a unique dish that stood out to my southern roots, a fusion of two comfort foods I had never actually combined myself. 

Then there was the crock pot of a green stew that was mostly made of tomatillos, onions, and green chilis. The protein in this dish was also nutria, only it was slow cooked, and added to the stew like pulled pork. I would compare it to a very lean pork, maybe even more like a wild boar than domestic swine. The dish was modeled after a traditional pork chili verde, only with the meat from a nutria cooked low and slow in a crockpot. I don't know the other details of the recipe, but I knew after taking the first bite that this was the dish to beat.

As it came time to announce the winners, I was confident with the satisfaction on the faces of the guests who had tried my tacos that I was shoe-in for first place. When they announced me as the first runner-up, I tried to hide my disappointment and humbly accept the honor of second place. The words of Ricky Bobby's father in Talledega Nights rang through my head, as I watched victory slip from my grasp and into the green abyss of that nutria verde.

Last year, the event sold out all 225 seats. This year, the family-friendly event will take place on August 3rd at Tyee Wine Cellars, just south of Corvallis on Greenberry Road, with live bluegrass provided by the Rusty Hinges.

Article and photos by Randall Bonner. Keep up with Corvallis news, events and happening by signing up for our email newsletter.

1. Invasive Species Cook-Off
Invasive Species Cook-Off 2019
Join Institute for Applied Ecology for the 8th annual Invasive Species Cook-Off Fundraiser Dinner on August 3, 2019. This festival-like event will be at beautiful Tyee Wine Cellars just south of Corvallis. Admission is $30 for adults, $20 for students, and $15 for kids 9-13 years old (kids under 9 years old get in free). Click the title or photo of this entry for more information.
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