by Whit Gibbons

January 23, 2011

Q. I have recently seen recipes for sandhill cranes and lionfish. What is your favorite wildlife recipe?

A. Some of the simplest recipes can result in some of the tastiest food. A restaurant experience I had qualifies for the simple feature and, if you like grease and salt, probably the tasty part, too. One summer I worked at a resort in Colorado along with a dozen other college kids from various universities. I was a cook in the resort's restaurant and got pretty good at broiling steaks, making salads, and cooking potatoes in various ways.

French fries were the most commonly requested potatoes, so we kept a hot vat of boiling grease at the ready. We also cooked a lot of rainbow trout and had plenty of pans of cornmeal ready for action. Because this was a major trout fishing region, anglers could bring in their fresh catch for us to clean, fry, and serve.

I got rather efficient at cleaning fish and cooking them, but after serving up a total of 212 rainbow trout, as the receipts later showed, between midmorning and nightfall on July Fourth, I was a bit weary of it. Also, I realized I had not eaten a meal since breakfast. and I was hungry. But you can bet I was not going to dine on trout.

As I was taking my apron off to let the arriving night shift of students take over, a fisherman came up to what we called the fish counter with a six-pound rainbow. He was proud of his catch. Though I was tired of looking at fish, especially one that big, I told him I would take care of it.

As he departed to join his group in the dining room, leaving his fish to be cleaned, I noticed he had also left his cardboard bait container. I was curious about what had been so attractive to all these fish during the day and peeked in the box. Crawling around inside were a dozen or so hellgrammites, the fat, dark-colored larvae of a big, intimidating insect known as the dobsonfly. Each hellgrammite was about two or three inches long and used its three pairs of legs to work its way through the dirt. They are considered ideal fish bait.

Adult dobsonflies are impressive creatures. Males can be almost five inches long with a six-inch wingspan and pincers an inch long, though the male's pincers are mostly for show. Females have shorter ones that can really pinch.

I'm not sure what possessed me, but I took a half dozen of the hellgrammites in hand and rinsed them thoroughly (hence my wildlife recipe starts, "rinse live hellgrammites thoroughly under clean running water"). I watched them crawl around in my hand for a minute and then dropped them into one of the pans of corn meal. They kept crawling, through the corn meal, under the corn meal, all around in the corn meal until they were coated. I remember thinking how nice it would be if fish breaded themselves like hellgrammites do. After two minutes of watching them crawl, I put them in the wire basket normally reserved for raw potato strips.

Let it be known that the hellgrammites did not suffer. Their lives were snuffed out within a quick sizzle of hitting the hot grease. And they cooked a lot quicker than potatoes. But with weeks of training in how to burn various kinds of food, I recognized the symptoms of overcooking and got them out onto a paper towel while they were still a crispy golden brown. Salt seemed important and was added in quantity.

Hellgrammites are best eaten by hand, like fried chicken or barbecued ribs, with or without hushpuppies. I can honestly say they were as good as most other salty fried foods. The other students and I did not tell the restaurant owner about our new recipe, and the fishermen in that part of Colorado are probably still feeding hellgrammites to trout rather than eating them themselves.

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