Running around a swamp at night in an airboat may not sound like fun to everyone, but a guy has to do what a guy has to do to get fresh alligator meat.
There are more of us than you might think. Each year, the state of Florida issues about 6,000 permits to people like me who want to catch an alligator. The gator hunting season ended Monday, and it was predicted that Florida gator hunters would bag about 7,000 of the state's most famous reptile.
If you've never tried it, gator meat is lean, flavorful, not as chewy as you may have heard if it is prepared correctly, and incredibly versatile.
Like chicken, alligator has both white meat (which really does taste something like chicken) and dark meat (which is heartier, more like pork shoulder). It's high in protein, low in fat. Some cooks like to tenderize their alligator with a meat mallet before cooking — it can be seared, pan-fried, deep-fried or simmered slowly in a cast iron pot over a campfire. Ground gator meat makes tasty burgers, tacos or spaghetti sauce.
But gator meat is not cheap, especially if you are hunting the animal yourself. When you figure in the price of the hunting license, alligator permit, guide fee and travel expenses, getting your own gator costs about $50 a pound. Which makes the $10 a pound you'll pay for frozen Florida gator meat at your local seafood market (see list) look like a bargain.
Even frozen, it's more expensive than shrimp, chicken and many cuts of beef.
But gator has an undeniable — some might say priceless — mystique, making it perfect for a special occasion such as a football game, especially one involving a certain university in Gainesville.
Gator meat is a sure conversation starter. Serve it to relatives who come from up North for a visit and they can have a "tail" to tell when they go back home.
Why should you serve gator? Just ask chef Zack Gross, who recently featured gator tacos as the blue-plate lunch special at Z Grille, his St. Petersburg restaurant.
"It sure gets people talking. . . . After all, this is an animal that can eat you," said Gross, who grew up in Southern California. "Some people won't try it, but other will be like, 'Hey, why not, this is Florida.' "
I took about half of the 30 pounds of meat from my 8-foot gator and passed it out to friends, including Gross, to see what they could come up with.
With about 4 pounds of ground gator, I whipped up a chili that I served to my son's Cub Scout pack on a recent camping trip.
Gross experimented with a pound of diced gator and found it very versatile.
"I soaked it overnight in some buttermilk with a little hot sauce," he said. "That way when I fried it, it wasn't chewy at all."
Chef Tom Pritchard of Salt Rock Grill and Island Way Grill rustled up Gator and Shrimp Jambalaya. He's an experienced gator chef.
"Gator, like fish, should be put on ice right away," said Pritchard, who likes to use gator meat in soups and stews. "If you take care of the meat, and prepare it properly, it can be a great addition to many recipes."
There was a time when Florida alligators were scarce. Overhunting decimated the state's wild alligator population, sending Alligator mississippiensis to the endangered species list.
As wild alligators slowly increased, consumers turned to alligator farms for a steady supply of meat. Many of these farmed alligators came from wild eggs collected by licensed trappers. Today, the state's wild alligator population is healthy enough to sustain a tightly managed annual recreational hunting season.
Whether you bag your own or buy it at the seafood market, use the extra-lean, white meat in any recipe that calls for chicken or fish. But do not forsake the more strongly flavored dark meats, which worked just fine in my Cub Scout chili.
If you would like to try and get your own gator during next year's hunting season, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regarding gator hunting classes and licensing at www.myfwc.com. Although not required, the classes are recommended for anybody planning to hunt and harvest Florida's state reptile.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]