Food for Thought

Gators: Chase ’em, taunt ’em, eat ’em

It’s hot.

And humid.

And we are outside. In Florida. According to a highway alert sign, it is National Venom Week.

Perfect timing.

Hot, humid, outdoors, venom week … ergo, miserable.

And, to make matters worse, we’re on the hunt, on alien turf.

An aging, broken-down biker slumped in an aging, broken-down plastic chair tosses an empty beer bottle against the cinderblock wall of the café and yells something incomprehensible to all but his aging, broken-down female companion. She flickers to life, rises from her aging, broken-down plastic chair and meanders into the café to fetch more brews. As she walks away, I notice a faded and sagging tattoo of a death’s head on her shoulder. Beneath it is emblazoned: “Ride Free or Die.”

I agree wholeheartedly. As long as you can ride free and eat at the same time.

I am ready to eat.

But, no.

I stand a few feet from the shore of Lake Jessup, scanning the still water in front of me.

“I don’t see any,” says Mindy. “But, they’re in there; I guarantee it.”

“Sure enough, they’re here,” says Roy.

“We gotta see some of ’em,” says Kathy as she walks to the edge of the water to stand next to a heap of broken concrete slabs. “It doesn’t make sense to come all the way to Florida and not see any.”

As in alligators.

Kathy is on a gator quest.

I could care less; I am so hot I am sweating rendered fat. I am having flashbacks. I don’t see any gators, but I am pretty sure Janis Joplin just whizzed past, at the helm of a rusty airboat. If I’m not mistaken, Hitler was with her. At first, I didn’t recognize him, what with the tropical shirt, the flipflops and all.

Kathy is utterly intent on an up-close-and-personal encounter with an alligator. Our pals Roy and Mindy have brought us to the lake on the edge of Oviedo in search of the mindless reptiles. We are here because I refuse to pay $25 per ticket for entry to Gator Town where, according to Roy and Mindy, keepers dressed in wife-beater T-shirts dangle a chicken above a tank and the prehistoric beasts hurl themselves out of the water in a frenzy, snapping at the tasty fowl.

Pretty tempting, I admit.

But, not $25 tempting. After all, there is wine to buy.

Another bottle crashes against the wall behind us. The biker vocalizes; his beloved slinks away to fetch another brew. My guess is the biker is a dentist or a CPA.

“Well, I can’t wait all day,” says Kathy. “After all, I want to go to the Kennedy Space Center and meet an astronaut. So, I bet if I sit down and dangle my feet in the water and splash around a bit, I might lure some of those gators over here.”

Hmmm.

The heat is obviously getting to the bride, too. If I remember correctly, the alligators in these parts can be counted on for several things: 1) to be large, more times than not; 2) to be astoundingly stealthy and lightning fast; and, 3) to grab prey, twist violently and rapidly carry victims beneath the surface of the water, there to be drowned, crudely dismembered and gulped down in a less than delicate manner.

Hmmm.

Before I can issue a reasonable warning, Kathy is up on the pile of broken concrete slabs.

“Ooooh, look. There’s a couple of snakes here — right where I was about to sit. But, they’re not moving. Probably dead.”

Roy goes over to look.

Two bottles crash against the cinder blocks behind us.

Janis and Adolph roar past in the airboat. Eleanor Roosevelt is on water skis behind the boat. She waves. She looks surprisingly good in a bikini.

“Oh, lord,” says Roy. “Those snakes aren’t dead. And … I’m pretty sure they’re Water Moccasins.”

Hmmm.

Kathy pauses, as if she is thinking about taking a chance with the snakes. I decide to leave her in control of her fate. She’s a big girl, after all.

Finally, she turns away and retreats from the shoreline, disappointed, but at least not a poster child for National Venom Week.

“Look, there’s a few out there,” says Mindy, pointing to some barely discernible dark bumps in the surface of the water fifty yards distant.

Gators. Less than exciting.

Fortunately, there is a series of concrete tanks on the property, just past the gaggle of beer-guzzling bikers, each tank surrounded by a cinderblock wall and a chain link fence. In each enclosure rest a few lazy gators.

Lazy, as in motionless.

In the case of the famed Hammy, the operant term is “catatonic.” Hammy, a giant, is sprawled half in and half out of a pool of fetid water. That part of Hammy’s back not submerged looks at least five days dry, complete with some decorative gull poop.

“Do you think if I stick my fingers through this fence and make a lot of racket, Hammy will lunge at me.”

I have been with this woman for more than 35 years; she continues to amaze me.

A trio of smaller, less famous gators lolligag in another enclosure.

“I wonder if they sell chicken carcasses at the gift shop?”

Kathy needs a reptile rush. Me, I need food. When I look at the gators, I see dinner.

I have neither eaten nor prepared alligator meat. I have heard stories of the flesh, heard claims about its character, its value as meat. I want to try it.

Another bottle breaks. I am not going to enter the café in search of the gator burger advertised on a tattered sign nailed to the wall next to the door. The burgers are only three dollars, but I’m in no mood to run the Ride Free gauntlet.

I can procure the meat on the Internet. Apparently, gator flesh freezes and ships well and, pricewise, is within reason. If you consider $20-plus per pound for “tenderloin” tail meat reasonable

I hit the Net and find sources in Sopchoppy, Lakeland and Gainesville, as well as in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Alligator Bob, in Thonotosassa, sells “Gator Stick” snacks. Nothin’ beats reptile on a stick.

As for cooking methods, most experienced gator cooks claim the high water content in the meat begs a sauté.

However, info procured from the Louisiana Fur and Advisory Council indicates the taste of the tail, backstrap and jaw meat allows the flesh to be used in most veal, chicken and seafood recipes. That taste is reportedly mild — only if all the fat and connective tissue is removed from the meat prior to cooking or freezing. Otherwise “gamey” is a key word. And I am not paying $20-plus per pound for gamey gator tenderloin.

My search for a beginner’s alligator recipe leads me to one tinted with irony and humor: Alligator Balls.

Things apparently removed from Hammy some time ago.

The balls require chopped alligator meat, minced white onion, parsley and shallots, some lemon zest, salt, pepper and a beaten egg. Everything is smushed together and breadcrumbs are added. The mix is formed into balls, rolled in flour and fried. This would be equally good with chicken, beef, pork, whatever, varying the seasoning in accord with taste. The balls would be better yet with a variety of dipping sauces, from citrus aioli to remoulade to salsa.

This is a simple, standard cocktail nibble. Gatorfied.

That darned tenderloin can also be sliced into cutlets, say the experts — pounded out, breaded or not, sautéed on one side for a couple minutes, turned and sautéed for a couple minutes more (don’t overcook it). Sauces? Katie bar the door: The options are virtually unlimited as long the sauce is kept relatively light (colorwise).

Gator etouffee? Oh, yeah. Gator in gumbo? Why not, if you like that sort of thing. Gator burgers? Sure.

Gator tacos I’m not sold on. Gator piccata could be a spectacular success.

I am placing my order for tenderloin as I write this. I will get in touch with Alligator Bob immediately after, and procure a batch o’Gator Sticks. I’m planning a Gatorpalooza, out on the deck, as soon as the temperature permits an outdoor party. I might even invite Janis and Eleanor.

But, the tail continues.

There is an e-mail from Roy and Mindy waiting when I return to Siberia With a View.

They inform me the day after Kathy and I left the area, a guy crash-landed his airplane in Lake Jessup.

Bet that brought the gators out in a hurry.

I need to tell Kathy about this.