Tales of Alligator Flesh and Tails

Alligator meat is quite varied in itself The meat found in the tail is white and sweet, and can easily fried or sauteed. The leg meat is dark and less tender, with a color and texture similar to a beef shank, best used in soups and stews. The body meat is more like that of pork shoulder. The jowl is the preferred meat by many. (p. 11, Florida Cookin’ Wild Style, by Tommy Greene, 2006)

On a dare from my brother, I speared an oily chunk of dark meat with my fork. He shoved his plate at me again, closer this time, egging me on.

I chewed. I chewed some more. And I chewed still. I shook my head. No more. Thank you. Tough, this meat, like a bit of beef from a bull that had humped one too many cows.

With a flash grab of the paper napkin next to my right hand, I pretended to wipe gravy off my lips. Bending my head down slightly toward my hand, i spat out the meat and wrapped it up like a tiny swag bag at a kid’s birthday party. I shoved it all under the chipped bread plate in front of me.

“You like that ‘gator, Sis?”

Alligator tail, swimming not in a cypress-rimmed swamp, but rather in a gumbo-thick sauce, made the way a gumbo should be, with  flour browned to the very edge of burning. dark brown and as rich in color as a mahogany table in a duchess’s dining room.

The Yearling restaurant, Cross Creek, Florida (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

“It’s a bit chewy, isn’t it?” I said. At that, my brother lolled back in his chair at The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek, Florida. Laughing. “Yeah, but it’s my goal in life to eat a bit of the flesh of as many creatures as possible. Weird and rare, and I don’t mean the cooking part.” He laughed again as he shoveled pieces of meat into his mouth and sopped up the shiny brown gravy with slices of the white airy bread in the basket next to his water glass, which was just an old Ball canning jar with a small crack on the rim.

Truth be told, I never ate another bite of ‘gator meat after that. And I don’t intend to. I also avoid liver of any type, as well as mutton and various renditions of goat cheese. Alligator flesh just falls rather naturally into my “I shalt not eat” list.

Hunting alligators (Plate XXVI, after Jacques Le Moyne, De Bry edition, late 16th century)

However, alligator meat played a role in the diets of the Timucua, Native Americans living in Florida when the first Europeans stepped on the sandy soil there. They developed an efficient method of teamwork for capturing and killing these beasts. A group of hunters  sharpened one end of a tree trunk and thrust it into the open mouth of an attacking gator, impaling the creature in a manner that would be the envy of Vlad the Impaler. Flipping the gator over allowed other hunters to slice open the  pale and soft lemony underbelly.  Cooks smoked the meat over smoldering fires, saving it for future use. French artist Jacques Le Moyne preserved scenes such as these during his sojourn at Fort Caroline from 1564 to 1565.

Early explorers’ accounts of Florida tended to describe the flora and fauna in idyllic language, portraying it all as a Garden of Eden, a paradise worthy of praise. In other words, a place where weary souls could regenerate and become whole once again.

Florida today – tarnished as it is with water shortages, runaway development, and an environmentally blind state government – in some ways still resembles an archetypal tropical island paradise attached to a mainland by a fluke of nature. Surrounded on three sides by ocean and salt, the mystique of the place still draws millions of people every year to visit or to stay. Does this place, not unlike the jungle set of the film “Jurassic Park,” speak to some primeval cell memory?

As for the alligators, perhaps many of those visitors want to eat ‘gator meat as a sort of communion with nature, attempting a sense of oneness with the spirit of this wild place?

For twenty years, alligators lived under the shadow of extinction, due to extensive hunting. In 1987,  the species having roared back to  healthy numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the American alligator from the endangered list. Now entrepreneurs raise alligators on farms to sell the meat and skins in an industry worth billions of dollars.

Home cooks with a hankering for ‘gator find packages of meat in most grocery stores in the states.  Even Paula Deen offers a recipe for Fried Gator, although she doesn’t differentiate what part of the ‘gator to use. The gem, though, of ‘gator cookery, comes with The Gourmet Gator Cookbook, by Lindy Brookhart Stevens (2001). The humorous subtitle tells all: “Recipes for people who know their place in the food chain!”

There is nothing humorous about alligators, as the great naturalist William Bartram, discovered.

Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake, The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder. When immediately from the opposite coast of the lagoon, emerges from the deep his rival champion. They suddenly dart upon each other. The boiling surface of the lake marks their rapid course, and a terrific conflict commences. ~ William Bartram

“The Alegator of St. Johns ,” by William Bartram

And therein lies a tale of tails. See Thomas Hallock and Richard Franz’s edited volume (2017), Travels on the St. Johns River, by John Bartram and William Bartram.

© 2017 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “Tales of Alligator Flesh and Tails

  1. Beyond wonderful. You have made me want to at least TRY alligator. After all, I ate raw shark meat and lived…

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