Sunday, November 8, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Alligator

     Since our father was a geography professor, my family quickly got used to long vacations every summer.  Because of these (and my later travel for work), I think I've been in every one of the lower 48 States save for maybe North Dakota.  Anyway, on one of our Florida trips we took a bus tour in the Everglades.  At the midway point we stopped and were given a choice:  To get back on the bus and go back to the visitor' center after a break, or walk around the Everglades on our own, and make our own way back to the center.  My brother and I quickly ran out and decided we would walk around on our own, and headed for the nearest dirt path.  We'd only gone a short distance when we saw something.  A big something.  A large alligator was right beside the path, its head resting on the edge of the path.  As if daring us to try to get past it.  Not surprisingly, that changed our decision, and we got back on the bus.
     Many years later, I was working down in Georgia, near Savannah, from late November into early March.  Which was bizarre--they don't have winter down there.  The temperatures were in high 50's to the 70's (Fahrenheit), and some days it even got into the 80's, in February.  Even with these (to me) freakishly hot temps many of the animals still found these too cold.  The giant spiders, snakes, and other reptiles had gone dormant, out of sight.  Which was good, since some of the crew needed to canoe over to some islands to dig.  Then, finally, near the end of the project, we saw it.  A large adult alligator, on the road.  It was big enough to take up an entire lane by itself--at least 7-8 feet long.  Luckily we were in our vehicles at the time.
     Although they're smaller than their crocodile relatives, American alligators are still pretty big, and formidable.  Adult females average about 8 feet in length, and males 11.  The largest ones can reach 14-15 feet long (the record one being 19 feet), and weigh 1000 pounds.  The other species, the Chinese alligator, is much smaller (up to 7 feet long), and alas, critically endangered, as only an estimated several dozen wild individuals exist.  The American variant lives in the Southern U.S. States--Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and North and South Carolina.  The U.S. is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side.  The two can be distinguished from each other by the alligator's shorter and wider head, smaller size, and the crocodile's protruding 4th tooth on its lower jaw when it's mouth is closed.  Also, despite their size, and weapons, they don't attack people very often.  They'll usually avoid humans unless they feel threatened, or if they're especially hungry.  Their jaws have an odd quirk, too.  Most of the muscles in it are designed to give the alligator an incredibly strong bite.  However, their power to open their jaws is relatively weak--an adult person can keep them closed with their bare hands.
    Alligators are one of the rare success stories from an ecological standpoint.  Once they were seriously endangered, enough so that they were protected from hunting by the federal government in 1967.  Happily, this worked--their population has boomed since then.
     This creature has a strange issue with its eggs as well.  The gender ratio is not pre-determined, as in most animals, but by temperature.  If the temperature in the nest stays at 86 degrees (F) or lower, all the eggs will become females.  If it's 93 and above, they will all turn into males.  In between will result in a mix.  This usually works out to a 5:1 sex ratio in favor of females.  80% or more of the babies will be eaten, either by other predators or other alligators.  The mother gator is very unusual among reptiles in that she cares for her children--assuming they stick around her, she will viciously protect them for the first year of their lives.
     I first got a chance to eat alligator in Louisiana in 1994.  I think it was battered and fried, and I don't recall it making much of an impression.  Years later I had a much better test, at a Portuguese tapas-style restaurant in NJ.  The gator there was roasted, I think, so I got to taste the meat itself in a more pure manner.  It was good.  I would certainly try it again, and recommend it.  Most folks say it has the cliche "tastes like chicken" flavor, but I thought it was much more reminiscent of fish. It's a good choice health-wise.  It's high in protein, and has decent amounts of potassium, phosphorous, B-12, and niacin, while having a relatively low fat content.
     Finally, in the nature-run-amok subgenre, the 1980 Lewis Teague-directed film, "Alligator" was quite effective.  It stars Robert Forster, Robin Riker, and "Frank Pentangeli" himself, Michael V. Gazzo.  It's both tensely frightening, and intentionally funny.  And despite the movie's age, the special effects hold up pretty well.

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