Gator doesn’t taste just like chicken. According to the Cook It Raw chefs tasked Tuesday with preparing wild alligator meat, it has a bouncy feel, froggy aroma, mild flavor and a startling similarity to monkfish.
Cook It Raw, the annual global gathering of self-professed avant-garde chefs, got underway this weekend at Middleton Plantation. But creative instincts weren’t unleashed until Tuesday, when participants had their pick of foraging, crabbing, rice-harvesting and alligator-hunting expeditions at Turnbridge Plantation, a few miles north of the Georgia state line. For chefs from Spain to Canada, alligator hunting was the marquee choice.
“We’ll probably get one for each of us,” John Jackson of Calgary’s CharCut, who traveled to the weeklong Charleston event with his co-chef Connie DeSousa, predicted with a mix of comic swagger and hope. “We’ll have alligator pajamas.”
Unlike rice production, alligator capture isn’t firmly entrenched in the Lowcountry canon. According to local foods scholar Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, it’s historically taken extreme hunger or boredom to drive hunters into the alligator game.
The recent lengthening of alligator season on private property has attracted more sportsmen, but the activity’s long been associated with making do: “It’s food that never really graced the table of the big house, but certainly would have been eaten,” says Sean Brock, who’s serving as the event’s unofficial host.
It’s not currently open alligator season, which is why Cook It Raw arranged to hunt on the privately-held Fife Plantation in Jasper County. Organizers had hoped to arm multiple participants, but the online licensing system gave out after DeSousa registered, making her the sole legal gator killer in the group.
“My plan is to shoot it and kill it instantly,” DeSousa said on the ride to Fife. “I don’t want it to suffer.”
Jackson initially worried his partner might not have the guts to shoot a gator. Although Jackson doesn’t have any alligator experience, he shot his first rifle as a 3-year old, and made his childhood spending money as a pigeon bounty hunter, collecting a dime a bird.
Throughout the hunt, Jackson surreptitiously edged closer to DeSousa, hoping to whisper advice or capture the kill on a camera setup he purchased specifically for the occasion. But he never had a chance to do either, since the lone gator that surfaced was spooked by a deer. Another alligator, which guide Catherine Harrison capably hooked for DeSousa, turned out to be a log.
Still, the chefs weren’t too broken up about returning to Turnbridge empty-handed because another guide landed a gator for the group. The chefs excitedly processed the tail, which everyone agreed was reminiscent of monkfish.
Brock led the butchering, mostly because he’d once broken down an alligator twice its size. Old gators have a funkier flavor, but they’re too tough to chew, which is why Brock ground the massive gator for sausage.
The chefs decided to smoke yesterday’s gator tail whole on the bone. Although New York’s Alex Stupak was intrigued by the alligator, he said he couldn’t picture serving it in the city: “If you put it on the menu, it’s like a novelty,” he says. “It’s not a legitimate food.”
Yet at Cook At Raw, there was no presupposition of illegitimacy. Back at Turnbridge — which resembled a culinary field day, with chefs pounding rice, sorting juniper berries, basting venison and slaughtering a goat — chefs were transfixed by the alligator, poking their fingers into its scales and assessing the gelatinous quality of its meat. But when lunch was finally served, there wasn’t much discussion of the gator. Chefs were too busy savoring boiled blue crabs, an indisputable Lowcountry classic.