The Glades were quiet. Thick. Heavy heat weighed on my skin like I was sitting in a bowl of conch chowder. There wasn’t a ripple on the water that wound its way through the river of grass, nor a sway of breeze through the bright green saw grasses. Great blue herons stood stock-still sentinel over the scene. The only things moving through the sludge of mid-afternoon August air in South Florida were the mosquitoes.
“Why are we doing this again?” My husband, Patrick, hissed in my ear, sounding awfully similar to the annoying buzz of the aforementioned mosquitoes.
“Because I love the Everglades tours, and your family hasn’t been out here before.” I looked over at his young down-to-visit-from-the-North niece, Fay, and nephew, Sean, and wondered if in winter, when bundled up in snow jackets and mittens, they’d ever dreamed of touring the swamps of Florida, flying over the knee-high water in an airboat with cotton buds shoved in their ears to drown out the noise, in search of Florida’s most primitive resident: gators. The wide smiles that lit their faces told of their excitement. The look on Patrick’s told just how far from our regular life on the water as captain and chef of a multi-million dollar yacht today’s boating adventure really was.
Billy Bob (I swear that was his name) slowed the boat from his perch on the high seat above and behind us and drifted toward the reeds. He pointed a weathered finger at a spot just behind a log half-submerged in the muck.
“This one here we call Alice.” His Seminole Indian drawl strung the words out to sound more like a paragraph than a sentence.
Fay’s knuckles whitened as she gripped the metal seat. Sean’s eyes widened as he leaned out farther over the edge. Both kids spoke at the same time: “Cool!”
Alice was a twelve-foot, aged-leather-looking monster with teeth the size of shot glasses and whiskey-colored slits for eyes. She barely acknowledged the beat-up aluminum airboat drifting past her. She didn’t even blink when the cameras started clicking. It was too hot to even submerge and swim away.
“Any day now we ‘spect to see Alice’s babies swimming ‘round here,” Billy Bob explained, noting that each breeding female laid forty to fifty eggs.
Fay’s eyes lit up. “Babies?”
The roar of the fan behind us drowned out her next question: “Can we take one home?”
As we headed back to the dock, I wondered if she’d be as excited if we saw one of the seventeen-foot Burmese pythons that had recently invaded the area.
“How about lunch?” I asked in hopes of distracting her from her quest of making Alice’s offspring a pet.
“There’s gator bites at the restaurant down the road,” Billy Bob shouted over the noise, but his words must have been distorted, because both kids spun around and stared at the native guide. “They bite?” Sean asked. “Cool!”
“Even better,” I said, “we could eat frogs legs.” I scrunched up my face, pretending to be grossed out by one of my secretly favorite dishes.
Again with the wide eyes.
But unlike most kids, Fay and Sean are adventurous eaters, and had no trouble sitting at the picnic table under the shade of a Cypress tree, devouring a platter of lightly dusted and fried alligator tail nuggets and the undeniable skinned legs of a bullfrog. The heat of the day had finally waned, but the mosquitoes had doubled as the setting sun turned the light golden. I bit into the succulent, mildtasting white meat of the gator bite and was surprised by how tender it was. All that mass and tough exterior produces a delicate and soft-textured meat that reminds me of cod. I didn’t even have to lie to the children about what they were eating. And, as the old joke goes, they were the first to comment, “It tastes like chicken.”
For Gator Bites:
- 1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
- 1teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1pound alligator tail, cleaned and cut into 2 inch-thick medallions
- 1/4 cup olive oil
For the citrus vinaigrette:
- 2 oranges, segmented and juiced
- 1 grapefruit, segmented and juiced
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 4 Key limes, juiced
- 1 shallot, minced fine
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped Sea salt and pepper
For the salad:
- 4 cups arugula
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
- In a small bowl, mix the Old Bay, sea salt, and flour. Dust the gator medallions with the mix. Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat. Add half the olive oil to the pan to coat the bottom. Gently place half the gator on the pan’s surface, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Sear for 2 minutes. Using a soft spatula, flip the gator over and cook for 5 more minutes, until the alligator is firm to the touch.
- Set the alligator on a paper towel, use the remaining oil to recoat the pan, and cook the rest of the alligator.
- Meanwhile, combine the orange, grapefruit, lemon, and Key lime juices in a saucepan, and simmer over moderate heat until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Pour into a bowl with the orange and grapefruit segments. Whisk in the shallot, olive oil, and Italian parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
- Divide the gator bites among 4 plates and top with the warm vinaigrette, leaving 2 tablespoons of vinaigrette in a large bowl.
- Toss the rest of the citrus vinaigrette and cherry tomatoes with the arugula. Season with salt and pepper and place on top of the gator bites.