Friday Musings: The Lantern Fly
If you live in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, you are well aware of the presence of an invasive little bug call the Lantern Fly. I remember when they arrived here a few years back. At first I thought they were sadly beautiful with all their spots and different combinations of red and black depending on the stage of their life cycle. The adults had gorgeous wings that turned them into fluttery paratroopers descending a bit erratically before hitting the ground with a roll and coming up on some fairly high legs. At first I wondered what the “squash to kill” order we received was all about. Could they really be that bad? I mean, if you ask me, cave crickets are a whole lot worse. Absolutely loathsome. But then I began reading about the damage lantern flies could cause to trees, vines, and crops that included things like oozing sap, wilting leaves, and even death if the infestation was major. Most insidious of all, lantern flies left a sugary substance behind called honeydew that encouraged the growth of a sooty black mold. As if all of their destructive potential wasn’t enough, their nuisance factor was also quickly climbing the charts. I had lunch one afternoon in West Chester Pa. two summers ago where these little creatures were utterly ubiquitous at the time. Needless to say, they rained down upon our table with a vengeance. I’d had enough. A bug killer I am not, but it seemed like it might be time to buy a good fly swatter.
Despite all the various methods homeowners employed to fend off these little nasties, they have most definitely wreaked a great deal of havoc in our region during the past few summers. An online article from Atlas Obscura estimated the damage at somewhere around $43 million in March of 2021. Just when it seemed fairly conclusive that there was no way to put any kind of positive spin on their presence, an interesting development involving lantern flies caught my eye. Stories began to pop up about a darker, more robust honey being produced by Pennsylvania bees that had a distinctively smoky flavor, the origin of which remained a mystery. In an effort to figure out where this new flavor profile was coming from, researchers at Penn State ran some DNA tests on the honey and were surprised to find traces of something called ailanthone, a chemical compound produced by trees of heaven, which just so happened to be the lantern flies’ favorite food source. As they devour the trees, they leave their honeydew behind, and because honeybees are drawn to its sweetness, they quickly consume it, and the lantern fly honeydew finds its way into the bees’ honey. I fully admit that I raised an eyebrow when I first heard this. There was a bit of a yuck factor here for sure, but any hesitation I had flew out the window when I was given the opportunity to actually taste lantern fly honey at Recklesstown. It was pretty amazing. Deep, dark, smoky, caramel-like, and mapley are all adjectives that immediately came to mind. Could I make a cocktail with it for our spring menu? I was definitely going to try.
As I began the creative process of figuring out exactly what I wanted to put in this new drink, a thought occurred to me. Obviously I am a person who seeks the bright side of things, no matter how dire the circumstances may be. Otherwise, why would I be lamenting the fact that there seemed to be no way to positively spin a lantern fly infestation? Now that something truly good about them was placed right in front of me, was it actually okay that I use it, or should the destruction they’ve caused put that goodness out of my reach? I’m not sure if this could be categorized as a moral dilemma, or more as an illustration of a struggle that we all go through on a regular basis. As an example, let’s consider the idea of a jam-packed day that stretches endlessly in front of us, causing us to wonder how we’ll ever get through it. Maybe we have many of these days where we move from one thing to the next, arriving at the end of each too tired to even think. But isn’t it true that if we reflect back on the day before we lose ourselves in our phones, or Netflix, or sleep, there was at least one moment of light? And isn’t it equally true that we tend to resist seeing that moment as such because we want to hold onto the idea that the day was a hard one, a tough one, a dark one? Yet that glimmer is still there, whether we acknowledge it or not. It leads me to wonder what would happen if we embrace the idea that even on the hardest days there will always be that tiny sliver of light that reveals itself. Could we then approach each day with the certainty that we will find it, and when we do, would that glimmer not grant us a moment of peace in which we could recharge and remind ourselves that one of the few aspects of life that is truly within our control is the way we look at things? Interestingly enough, if the lantern fly infestation subsides as it’s expected to, this magnificent honey will disappear, as does the brightness that hides within the darkest day. Each of these slivers of light is unique and can offer us much needed hope, or a lesson, or just a chance to breathe, but only if we allow ourselves to see them.
For today’s cocktail, could there be a direction to go in other than a riff on the classic Bees Knees? Of course not! The original drink is made with gin, honey syrup, and lemon. It is surprisingly simple, yet its flavors come together in a way that is amazing. I knew that I had to go in somewhat of a different direction in order to feature the honey’s smokiness, yet still respect the original classic’s structure and taste. Grapefruit juice tends to work extremely well with things that are smoky. If you think about how naturally it pairs with tequila, that should make perfect sense. Because the honey is also very bold in its caramel and dried fruit notes, I needed a bright, sharp element that would work harmoniously with those flavors, as well as cut through some of their intensity. I found what I was looking for in the 1/8 ounce splash of POM juice. While the grapefruit did wonderfully on its own, I felt that the drink still needed the tiniest hint of lemon to help balance the citrus and sweet components, and to remind us of the original recipe. Finally, since we have nothing that is a smoky spirit at Recklesstown, we often use Lapsang Souchong tea infusions to bring smoke into a cocktail or, in this case, to highlight smokiness that’s already there. The garnish may be my favorite part. Hibiscus sea salt starts out black, but quickly begins to streak red when it hits a drink’s surface. I’ve had at least one customer ask me, “Um, are these lantern fly bits on top??” No, they most certainly are not. Cheers everyone! Happy Friday. I wish you many glimmers of light today. As always, thank you so much for reading.
The Lantern Fly
2 oz RFD Truck Farmer gin
1.25 Lantern Fly honey simple*
1 oz grapefruit juice
.125 oz POM juice
.125 oz lemon
2 dashes Lapsang tea infused moonshine
Double strain into a cocktail coupe.
Garnish with hibiscus sea salt.
*Two parts honey to one part water