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Go ahead, eat a nutria, and feel good about it.

Byline: FOOD DUDE By Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

Years before "Fear Factor" or "Survivor" lowered the bar for what was considered edible, Food Dude ate some cat food and felt pretty good about himself. At that time, kids were the only ones eating worms, and I imagined myself as some sort of food stunt man, willing to go where no adult would ever tread.

Cat food wasn't bad, really - it just tasted dry and strangely seasoned. The experience came courtesy of a neighbor kid who had a sick fascination with feeding people stuff they weren't supposed to eat. Of course, he didn't eat the cat food, only I did, but that just made it all the more special for me. And considering some of the things I saw him dish out to other kids, I should probably feel lucky I didn't get it worse.

If you know the whereabouts of my former neighbor, Eban Miller, write to the Food Dude so I can exact my revenge. You can also send a food-related question to the address at the end of the article.

Dear Food Dude: I have read that Louisiana encourages the killing and eating of nutria. Is it legal to catch and eat those critters in Eugene? What are the preferred methods of capture? Is a hunting license required? Got any tasty recipes?

Thank you for your help with these vital questions.

Best regards,

- S.F.

Dear S.F.: Nutria are classified as unprotected nongame wildlife in the state of Oregon and, as such, are fair game, says Michelle Dennehy, wildlife communications coordinator for the state's Fish and Wildlife department. You don't need a permit to kill and eat a nutria (though you do have to obey the laws governing the use of firearms, leg-hold traps, explosives, etc.), and if you're hungry, you can add Virginia possums, eastern cottontail rabbits, fox squirrels, eastern gray squirrels, snapping turtles, red-eared slider turtles and Egyptian geese to the unprotected animal menu.

Food Dude would eat the rabbit before the nutria, but that's just me.

Aside from being ugly (some say they're ugly-cute), the orange-toothed nutria is an extremely destructive, non-native, invasive species that can eat 25 percent of its weight per day in vegetation. These 20-pound rat-tailed rodents reproduce rapidly and could easily be the evil, fuzzy demons in a horror show, so don't feel too bad about taking a few of them out. You'd be doing the state of Oregon a great favor. Not only do they decimate aquatic plant species and compete with native muskrats for food and shelter, but they also endanger recreationalists on the Willamette River bike path where they serve as moving speed bumps for cyclists, runners and roller bladers. Even vegetarians don't like the "nute," which burrows into farmers' fields and destroys crops.

Oregon is one of 40 states with established nutria populations. The critters were first introduced from South America to this country in 1899 in California. They started appearing widely in Oregon in the 1930s, and can be traced to a Tillamook fur farm, says Jim Gores, the state's invasive species coordinator. Oregon has thousands of nutria with dense populations on the coast and in the Willamette Valley.

These little gremlins are growing their populations rapidly and spreading north and south along the Interstate 5 corridor. Nutria have done extensive damage to native habitat throughout the state, and Gores says there are plans for a nutria summit to figure out how to control their populations.

Louisiana has an even bigger problem. They were introduced there in the 1930s and fur farmers tried to market them as the "mink of tomorrow." Many of these nutria farms failed and thousands of the little monsters were released into the wild. The struggling fur industry turned around in the 1950s, grew rapidly and reached its peak in the 1970s. After the market crashed in the 1980s, wild nutria populations surged.

Nutria numbers in Louisiana are now estimated at 20 million. The state pays a bounty of $4 for every nutria tail and typically gets about 300,000 tails a year.

Nutria haven't just wiped out wetlands, they've caused the collapse of canal banks in New Orleans and have been implicated in the failure of one eastern New Orleans levee following Hurricane Katrina.

So the nutria, you see, has blood on its paws and deserves to be on your dinner table. Now, the question is, do you really want to eat this thing?

Although it looks like a dirty river rat, nutria are pure vegetarians and are actually cleaner than your average rodent. Classified as red meat, the animal is rich in protein and low in cholesterol, but the cooking process can be time consuming. According to one Louisiana home chef, preparing a nutria carcass requires "a cleaver and a lot of space."

Nutria's mild flavor is often likened to rabbit or dark turkey. It can be used as a substitute for chicken, beef or pork and it's been commonly used in chili, jambalaya and gumbo. At least one Lane County farmer has been known to make nutria jerky, which I'm told is quite tasty.

Food Dude doesn't do recipes, but you can find cooking suggestions and instructions on how to butcher a nutria at, you guessed it, www.nutria.com.

As to your question about how best to capture (and, I'm assuming, kill) a nutria, how about a frying pan to the head?

One method I wouldn't suggest is a metal spike to the head. That's what a University of Oregon worker was using to take down nutria who were stealing carrots and beets from the school's urban garden, according to a recent story reported by KMTR-TV.

You can always follow the state's advice for "population control inside city limits" and use a live animal trap rented from a local feed and supply store or a pest management company. That still leaves you with the messy problem of how to properly dispatch the rodent. I'm sure you can come up with something, S.F.

When it comes time to cook that "swamp beaver," you might want to try and get your hands on a nutria cookbook published by the state of Louisiana in the late 1990s as part of its campaign to encourage the consumption of nutria. The book, which has submissions from well-known Southern chefs, contains recipes for fettuccine with poached nutria, nutria salad and nutria a l'orange.

Louisiana's $4 per tail bounty on the nutria has been fairly successful, but its attempts to thin the critter's numbers by aiming for people's stomachs never really took hold. Top chefs such as Philippe Parola and Paul Prudhomme were enlisted to speak passionately about the Dorito-toothed rodent, and it was even marketed under the French name ragondin, but most people found it hard to forget they were eating an oversized wharf rat.

Talk to the Food Dude at www.registerguard.com/blogs/index.php/fooddude.
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 16, 2006
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