THR Web Features   /   June 7, 2021

Let Us Now Praise the Periodical Cicadas

And be grateful they return only every seventeen years

Vincent Ercolano

( Via Wikimedia Commons)

Residents of Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia who thought they’d been stricken by tinnitus when they awoke one recent May morning should be regarded by their neighbors with the forbearance reserved for callow youth and new folk in town. What these sufferers were experiencing was not the sudden mad dance of hair cells in their inner ears, but the pulsating song of billions of seventeen-year cicadas.

For inhabitants of the Middle Atlantic (and parts of the South and Midwest) too young to remember 2004, when Magicicada septendecim last reappeared, or who were living elsewhere that year, the emergence from the very earth of legions of huge, noisy bugs must have seemed like yet another horror show just as we were closing out a whole year of them. But among the rest of us, the reaction was more like “Seventeen years? Already?”

This is my fourth round with Brood X of the Magicicada (the “X” means 10; entomologists use it to distinguish a brood’s region and periodicity), and though its throngs have laid many a crawly leg on me and mine, it has neither bite nor sting to harm a human. Its great size (up to 2 inches tip to tail), blood-red eyes, and body as black and clunky as Darth Vader’s helmet do make one grateful that looks indeed do not kill.  In the 1970 round, we nonetheless nearly lost one of our neighbors, Miss Yvette, who had a cicada land on her face as she drove to work one morning. Despite plowing into a row of parked cars, she escaped injury, but her own vehicle, a ’63 Ford Galaxie, was badly torn up. I guess its black chassis and red vinyl interior were sufficiently cicada-like to convince some love-hungry male, racing to find a mate before his five weeks above ground expired, that he’d spotted the girl of his dreams, and then some.

Even before a cicada nearly made a casualty of Miss Yvette, the younger kids in my neighborhood had gone to war against the critters, turning away for the time being from their two-front conflict with black ants and Japanese beetles, both plentiful every summer. The weapon of choice was the badminton racquet.  Even the cats and songbirds seemed to agree to an interval of comity in their endless war, so that both sides might hunt the protein-rich swarm.

We possessed shamefully scant and one-dimensional knowledge of the people who had arrived in the Middle Atlantic thousands of years before our own ancestors, but we were dimly aware that cicadas had been a welcome addition to the original Americans’ diet, when available, and even continued to be considered provender in certain quarters.

The cicada is an arthropod, which makes it a relative of the shrimp (which some claim it resembles in flavor). It is said to be most palatable if caught right out of the exoskeleton, which cicada nymphs shed shortly after emerging from their long residence underground. The nymphs are then sautéed or blanched, though battering and deep-frying is also recommended. To a Marylander, this sounds a lot like the process required to produce that local delicacy, the soft-shell crab: Alert watermen catch the “shedder” after it frees itself from a shell that has become too snug, but before it can grow a new one. If given the opportunity, most Marylanders will happily eat a soft-shell crab sandwich, which looks like nothing so much as a giant spider deep-fried in batter (“with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added,” as H.L. Mencken suggested) and stuck between two pieces of white bread. But no one I know has ever eaten a cicada—with or without jock-strap.

In our present era of high gastronomic adventure, regional foodies seem intent on remedying that deficiency. “I plan on just exhausting all the possibilities” said a Brooklyn chef of entomophagic tendencies quoted in a recent Washington Post how-to (“for the insect-curious”) on catching, cooking, and eating cicadas. Another enthusiast, a DC-area biology professor and self-described “science mom,” did the locusts-and-wild-honey regimen of John the Baptist one better by serving cicadas dipped in chocolate to her daughters and their friends. 

I spent much of the septendecimal interval from 1970 to 1987 far from the East Coast, but as luck would have it relocated just in time for the return of good old Brood X.  We had a warm spring in ’87, so Magicicada burst from the earth with particular vim. My wife recollects happening upon a June wedding while on a tour of Mount Vernon that year. The group had just stopped to admire the ceremony when a cicada alighted on the lace-covered shoulder of the bride. Whether because he was too dazzled by her beauty to do anything or simply scared of bugs, the groom stood motionless, leaving it to the plucky parson to pause in his reading from the Book of Ruth to flick away the wedding crasher. My wife recalls that though the service was a decorous Christian affair, the insistent rising and falling drone of the cicadas in their millions gave the nuptials a wild, pagan air.

By the time Brood X made its next appearance, in 2004, I’d taken up my own form of droning—singing tagalong tenor in a church choir. In many churches, Trinity Sunday, which fell in early June that year, is the last time the full choir sings before taking a summer break. Our choir had already begun thinning out the last few weeks; the cicadas likewise were no longer quite so thick upon the ground (or, for that matter, in the trees). Like us human choristers, they were starting to sound a bit wan.

Holding up my end of an understaffed tenor section was hot, tiring work that Sunday; I took longer than usual to trudge to the foyer after the Voluntary to get a cup of coffee, then go downstairs to change. There was nearly no one left in the building as, cassock and cotta over my arm, I opened a side door onto the church grounds, already empty this balmy afternoon. I stepped out into—dead silence.

Once again, Brood X had given its all—leaving its spawn to the tender mercies of 2021.