If you live in the southern United States, you know kudzu. The invasive, green weed clings to dilapidated barns, climbs trees, spreads across fields and seems to eat almost everything in its path, right up to the side of the freeway.
There's never been much use for the stuff, but if you were offered, say, a kudzu salad, would you eat it? What if you were offered something totally different but equally "strange" — like grilled guinea pig or pan-roasted pigeon? Would you eat either of those?
The likely answer is no because, well, they're just not considered mainstream in the United States. But should they be? Perhaps. (More on that in a minute.)
According to the 2015 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation's 10th anniversary Food and Health Survey Taste, most Americans — 83 percent in fact — say taste is what's most important when they make their food choices. (Have you ever tasted kudzu, guinea pig or pigeon? Didn't think so.) Price (68 percent) and healthfulness (60 percent) follow behind, and have every year during the survey's 10-year history.
But aside from our apprehension of their taste, assistant professor and extension nutrition specialist Carla J. Moore, Ph.D. RDN, LD, at UGA's College of Family & Consumer Sciences, says she thinks we don't eat these potentially edible items because we don't need to.
"The U.S. produces more than enough food to meet the population's basic nutritional needs. And recent estimates indicate that approximately 30 to 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted," she says. "To my knowledge, these foods do not possess nutritional profiles that are superior to those of foods that are currently available."
Of course, outside of U.S. borders, this is another thing entirely. Guinea pig, for example, is common on menus in South America, particularly throughout the Andes. Many Peruvian and Chilean restaurants serve roasted "cuy" as an entrée, and some U.S. environmentalists are taking note. Yes, environmentalists.
Matt Miller, a science writer with The Nature Conservancy, told NPR the rodents make a good, low-impact alternative to carbon costly beef. He also says guinea pig is delicious, by the way. (And no, it does not taste like chicken.)
So what about pigeon, aka squab? Still a delicacy in France, squab has been served since ancient times, and you can find it on menus at high-end restaurants like Per Se and Daniel. Here's one offered by the New York City butcher shop Marlow & Daughters.
These are not the birds that leave their calling card on your car. Those carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Restaurant-quality squab is now farm-raised and safe for consumption, despite its decline in popularity. It's said to have a delicate taste, a cross between chicken and duck, and just slightly gamey.
So back to that kudzu question. Would you try a salad made with kudzu greens? What about a jelly, candy or syrup made from kudzu blossoms? Kudzu quiche? They're all possible because, yes, you can eat kudzu.
Pretty much all of it — the leaves, flowers and roots — is edible except the vine. Use the leaves raw, baked in quiches, cooked down like collards or even deep-fried. Go for young kudzu shoots as they're tender and have a taste similar to snow peas.
So go for it. Shirk the social norm and eat a guinea pig. Try a kudzu salad. Enjoy a pan-roasted squab. You only live once, right?