Oliver Curtis, 17, has been taking classes at the Telling Room in Portland since he was about 10. This fall he started a project with the nonprofit writing center for youth that will culminate next August with a published book. He’s writing a cookbook that attempts to address the proliferation of invasive species, plant and animal, with recipes for ways to eat the invaders. When we heard what Curtis was up to, talking to him sounded like exactly the sweet solace everyone in the sustainability community needs right now. That turned out to be just the case; this teenager is focused on ways he can contribute to society.
WHY A COOKBOOK? Curtis’ older sister Maddie has also been an active participant at the Telling Room – she published a collection of short stories through the program. He knew he wanted to follow in her footsteps and do his own book. Green crabs were definitely part of the inspiration, too. In middle school at the Friends School of Portland – he’s at Baxter High now – teachers used the Mackworth Island setting to teach marine biology, and Curtis spent some time on the beach, counting both green crabs and native crabs. Guess who dominated?
THE UNDERSEA WORLD: This was not an onerous task for Curtis. He’d been swept away at around age 10 by the subject of Jacques Cousteau. “I read a couple of biographies about him and his films, and I really found it very cool. And I began to watch some of his movies that he made back in the day and found them to be very interesting.” They were in French, but that hardly mattered because they were “about the amazing world we don’t get to see.” Sometimes Curtis thinks he might go into marine biology as a career. But there’s also cooking to consider. And writing. The cookbook is a way to combine them.
GREEN CRAB STAR: He’s already got ideas for 27 recipes, illustrated with photos. “I am going to give a wide spectrum of invasive species from different parts of America,” he says, “but from mostly Maine.” The green crab will be well featured, with at least three recipes. When Curtis started planning the book he realized he needed to get a license to catch green crabs, even if they are invaders. He paid his $12 and now he’s legit. And he’s got 24 green crabs in a tank at home, just waiting for the recipe-testing sessions. “We don’t quite know when we are going to cook them but we know how.”
HOME COOKING: Who is “We”? Curtis is getting an assist in recipe formulation from his mother, who has some restaurant cooking experience. “She taught me how to cook.” How old was he when she started? “Maybe 5. She began with the sweet things, the cookies, the cupcakes, the cakes, and as a kid I really, really wanted to make cake.” She inspired a deep interest in the topic that extended to screen time. “I grew up on the Food Network.” That included Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay. “And I’m a fan of Anthony Bourdain, I think he makes great TV shows.”
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RAMEN: They’ve already experimented with some deep frying. Which was good, although a fair amount of work. “There is kind of a tiny amount of meat, but it is still very much worth it.” Also in the works is a green crab ramen, with the meat steamed. “I’m also thinking of doing sushi because I am a big fan.” Something along the lines of a California roll. “That would be a very good twist.” There will be a crab cake, too.
KNOTWEED VENDETTA: The cookbook, as yet untitled, will include recipes for Japanese knotweed. “It’s something I have been working against since like, fifth grade.” Come again? Friends School of Portland got the student body out chopping at the bittersweet and the knotweed.” He’s had it in for the stuff from an early age. “I’m thinking like a pie or a cake,” capitalizing on its rhubarb-like quality.
LION’S PRIDE: One of the invasives he wants to fillet hasn’t quite made it to Maine yet but could as climate change marches onward: lionfish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began a campaign urging people to eat the invader from the Pacific in 2010. Curtis thinks some recipes might help.” I am definitely going to photograph so that I can make people actually want to eat it.”
REPORT CARD: Does he get credit for this? “It’s an independent study almost. I am not getting credit, but I am getting the chance to publish a book, which is amazing.” He’s getting an assist at the Telling Room from Molly McGrath, the director of publications, and Patricia Hagge, the artist in residence.
JUST DESSERTS: “I am hoping to kind of rejuvenate the conversation about invasive species,” he said. “The whole conversation about what we are going to do with these invasives and how we are going to make sure we maintain our great ecosystems is kind of going flat. But recently I’ve been noticing chefs locally and otherwise have been trying to shake things up.” He wanted to join in. What does the future hold, besides some steaming bowls of green crab ramen? What about a Food Network series on cooking invasives? That would be cool. “I am not like an amazing biologist and I am not like an amazing chef right now, but I would like to study more about these subjects. The more I do, the more I will be able to contribute to society.”