Photos by (clockwise from top left) Ryan Somma/Flickr CC; pointnshoot/Flickr CC; Infrogmation/FlickrCC; star5112/Flickr CC
Most animals raised for human consumption are fairly innocuous, even cute. Pigs and cows are more dangerous then they seem, but on the scale of faunal aggression, barnyard creatures rank close to the bottom. Alligators do not.
Anyone who tells you that an alligator is not a dinosaur is clearly lying. They are scaly, bumpy, have giant sharp teeth, and eat rodents whole. Louisianans, however, are unfazed. The best way to handle them is to put them in little barns, raise them big, kill them and eat them. This Yankee is perpetually amazed.
The classic adage "tastes like chicken" applies to alligator meat--but it's also richer and tougher, with a distinctly swampy presence. It's served like any other meat in New Orleans: fried, sautéed, in a gumbo, or ground to sausage. According to Jon Price at Insta-Gator Ranch in Covington, the best gator meat, like on a pig, is in the backstrap and underneath that giant snapping jaw.
Alligator production in Lousiana runs the gamut from hunting to agriculture. You need to be a landowner to be able to legally bag a wild one, but domestics (as domestic as dinosaur gets) exist too. Insta-Gator falls somewhere in between--they harvest eggs from the wild and then hatch them and raise them at their ranch. The mother alligator doesn't wholly approve, but they are so unused to being confronted that a broom handle will scare them away.
The environmental movement in the bayou is much older than the recent sustainability craze. Some Louisianans cringe at any products harvested from the wild, but according to Price, Insta-Gator's system of raising wild eggs and re-introducing grown gators not only strengthens the numbers of the wild population but the genetic stock as well. Killing them, eating them and wearing them as shoes is, of course, a bonus.
The most popular alligator product is the watchstrap, and so the best size to harvest an alligator, according to Price is four feet. The meat is at its most flavorful at that size too. A specialty product like alligator doesn't do well in a tense economy, however, and Insta-Gator has found that in order stay afloat they have to grow gators even larger so they can augment their regular business with tourism. For five extra dollars you can play with the babies.
In this country, most concepts of regional food persist due to tradition, not ecology. One eats oysters in Savannah because oysters are traditional coastal Southern food, but the actual bivalve you order on the river likely comes a farm in the northeast. The fat used in the archetypal Southern frying is less likely to be excess lard than vegetable oil from a Canadian rape field. A New England apple pie could more accurately be called a New Zealand apple pie. Alligator meat, however, is a holdout--you're highly unlikely to find it very far away from where it's produced. The pungent presence of the bayou in every bite is a testament to that.
Most of the alligator I saw in New Orleans was in smoked sausage form, and usually mixed with pork. It has a good Cajun flavor, but you wouldn't know it was alligator unless you were told. This recipe showcases the meat itself in a classic New Orleans dish, and it comes straight to us from Covington native Beverly Gariepy. To get a cut of alligator meat, head to big fisherman's seafood on Magazine Street. The Internet will furnish you with some too, even if you're not in Nawlans.
Recipe: Alligator Sauce Piquante
Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil, medium-high heat.
Stir in the onions, peppers, celery, red pepper flakes, cayenne, and bay leaves and salt. Cook about 5 minutes.
Add 3 tablespoons of the flour and cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, Worcestershire, and pepper sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low.
Place several pieces of alligator meat at a time on a work surface covered with plastic wrap. Cover the meat with plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet until 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 2-inch strips.
Dredge the alligator pieces in seasoned flour, shaking off any excess.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Fry half the alligator meat until golden brown. Repeat with the remaining alligator.
Add the meat to the sauce. Increase the heat under the sauce to medium-high and bring to a gentle rolling boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer uncovered until the meat is tender, so, about 2 hours.
To serve, spoon the rice into soup bowls, top with the meat and sauce, and garnish with the green onions and parsley.
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