Fry: "So, is it true that alligators flushed down the toilet survive down here?"
Vyolet: "No. That's just an urban legend."
Bender: "Then what are those?"
-- Futurama, "I Second That Emotion"
You wouldn't think it by the merits of its vise-grip jaws and its millennia of evolutionary endurance, but the alligator gets no respect. Yeah, yeah, everyone knows the bite-force of American alligators can approach one ton. Lots of teeth, big mean tail, we got it. But how much respect can be given an animal -- even one with these fearsome traits -- when mankind's greatest weapon against it is a cotton pillow case?
An adult human can hold the jaws of a full-grown alligator shut, notwithstanding the thrashing from the rest of its body, of course. Most people probably can't tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile. Heck, even the University of Florida Gators put a picture of a crocodile on the cover of their 2003 media guide and sent it to press without catching the error.
And when we humans eat alligator, the best we can say is that it tastes like chicken. Chicken! The animal most often equated with cowardice! Who's a gator got to maul to get some respect around here?
There are two species of alligator extant in the world today: the Chinese and the American. Another four have gone extinct, most of those prehistorically. Cuisines in both nations utilize alligator in the areas where it flourishes, but the Chinese species is extremely endangered and its consumption is highly contentious.
There are strange foods of convenient ubiquity throughout human history. Oysters, cactus, tripe -- all are examples of people deciding that something close at hand is worth tossing in the stew pot or turning over an open flame. We look back now and wonder: Who thought of that? Alligator is a whole different critter, though; let's just say that oysters aren't known for snapping their shells closed and severing human limbs.
It's a good thing that the first, or second... heck, probably the tenth human took a chance on harvesting gator. That human found a pretty good-eatin' meat. Fat and cholesterol are low compared to beef. It's got high calcium content, although I'd much rather risk milking a cow for the first time than snaring an alligator. Along with the ostrich and mussel, the alligator is near the top of the list in low-calorie/high-protein meats -- over a lot of common menu items like pork or chicken.
Despite its growing popularity, alligator meat still doesn't get the same wide distribution as does its American mother cuisine, New Orleans Cajun. Having gator on the menu is more a function of the audacity of the chef than it is the general cuisine offered. Here in Madison, New Orleans Take-Out features no alligator on the regular menu. Babs' French Quarter Kitchen puts alligator in a brunch omelet on the weekend, but nothing else. In fact, the Menasha Grill in northeast Wisconsin might be the closest eatery that puts alligator in the daily spotlight.
The Winter 2009 Madison Restaurant Week started Sunday, and among the many dining opportunities offered is a rare chance at alligator for dinner. Executive chef David Heide of Liliana's Restaurant in Fitchburg has crafted an alligator and bacon entree that will only be on the menu through Friday, January 30, so I made sure to get there as early as possible.
From a Fringe Foods perspective, the cool thing about ordering the Bayou menu with alligator is that it also includes Madagascar prawns. These big boys are served with head, antennae, and legs intact. I'll leave it to you to figure out a polite way to access the interior. Certainly, eating a bug with a face in addition to gator makes for a distinctly fringe-y meal.
Alligator has three types of meat: white tail, dark tail, and body. Most restaurants who offer limited gator selection utilize the tail, and of those it seems that the dark meat is most popular. Perhaps it freezes best, perhaps it's cheaper than the white meat. The unfortunate truth is that it's the toughest of the three types.
Liliana's is serving their alligator in bite-sized pieces, lightly fried and alongside bits of Nueske's bacon and a spicy tomato sauce. It's a pretty nice combination, one made even better with a bottle of Abita Restoration Ale from New Orleans. Sadly, the alligator was the least pleasant of all the component parts of the meal.
My gator was tough -- some pieces went beyond chewy and were downright difficult to eat. A bit of eavesdropping discretely on diners around me (sorry!) revealed that others who ordered the alligator found it to be similarly prepared. The quantity was another bad surprise. Only four or five nuggets graced my plate. I was still eating tomato and rice long after the gator was gone. If the pieces had been either bigger or more numerous, I'd have been much more satisfied.
I cannot say that alligator tastes like chicken. I'm not one to take the easy way out. There is a certain chicken-like aspect to the meat, but it bears as much resemblance to pork chops, especially in its stringy chewiness when overcooked. Other reviewers have noted a slight seafood flavor; any such flavor in my portion was drowned out -- pleasantly, I'll admit -- by the smoky aura of bacon.
If this menu item doesn't make it to the regular rotation, that would be okay with me. It needs fine-tuning, and is at best a novelty item. Restaurant Week is an ideal venue for this gator dish. The flavors are there, but the execution is not. If the alligator chunks were braised, or perhaps even stewed, the end result might be better. Something needs to be done to tenderize the meat if the kitchen ever intends to pursue greater things for its alligator.
And that's where we are with the American alligator. Dude's been around for ages thanks to his tough hide and nasty tail, and I'm sitting here wishing that he was just a little softer. No respect, I tell you.