Story and recipes by Cynthia Nobles
Did you know that Louisiana is the largest commercial producer of alligator products in the U.S.? That’s according to Jeb Linscombe, Alligator Program Manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).
“Florida gets all the press for alligators,” Linscombe says. “But theirs are mostly tourist attractions. We do a much better job capitalizing on hides and meat. Actually, every inch of a gator has a use.”
In Louisiana, wild alligators have been hunted commercially since the 1800s. Licensed alligator farming through LDWF’s Alligator Ranching Program began in 1986. Initiation of the farm program was an effort to shore up the gator population after Louisiana had conducted a nationally and much-heralded conservation effort that shut down hunting from 1962-1972.
“It’s hard to believe, says Linscombe, “but alligators used to be on the endangered list. Now Louisiana has over 2 million. We’re managing them so well that habitat loss is their biggest threat. The farm program gives landowners a chance to make money by protecting wetlands for alligators. That’s a big win for everybody.”
Louisiana alligator farmers and wild hunters harvest some 430,000 alligators annually, for an official total economic impact of well over $250 million. Linscombe says that’s an extremely conservative number.
The commercial market for meat is relatively new and, according to Linscombe, is steadily growing. Our alligator meat goes all over the world. Alligator skins also ship worldwide and they land up in luxury items such as handbags, belts, watchbands, and shoes. “A lot of hide goes to labels like Luis Vuitton, Gucci, and Hermes,” Linscombe says. “Some of those purses sell for over $30,000.”
I wonder if the folks at Gucci have ever slopped through a Louisiana swamp to see firsthand how their raw product grows. If they did, they would have learned that the whole process of harvesting gators, whether wild or on farms, starts with eggs laid in the wild.
Because of cost, required years to reach maturity, and the danger of farm staff’s hands being bitten off, farms generally do not use captive breeding programs. Therefore, marsh-laid eggs are typically used on alligator farms, and the eggs must be collected by hand. “Some eggs for farms do come from Florida,” Linscombe says. “But the majority are laid right here along our coast.”
Alligators breed when the weather warms up. Beginning in May, females lay clutches of 30-50 eggs in intricate 10-foot-wide nests made of decomposing vegetation. “They’re in protected land areas in shallow marsh. Wiregrass is best for a nest,” Linscombe says. “After her eggs are laid, the mother covers them with a dome of grass. Laying peaks in mid-June. By July 4 they’re all laid.”
On alligator farms, “harvested” eggs are artificially incubated. In the marsh, eggs stay warm in what is essentially a big compost pile. The mother alligator hangs around protecting the nest and occasionally wets it to keep it from drying out.
The incubation period is around 65 days. The hatch rate in incubators and in the wild are about the same, 85 percent. Because of predators, floods, and drought, survival rate is much lower in the wild.
When farmed alligators reach around four feet, farmers are required to return 10 percent back to where the eggs came from, to promote steady population growth. Before returning to the wild, released farm-raised alligators are measured, sexed, tail-notched, tagged, and recorded. The remaining 90 percent on farms are processed between 4-6 feet long.
Farming involves a three-way agreement, between the farmer, LDWF, and landowners with mating alligators. Eighty percent of Louisiana’s coastal land is owned privately. “Alligator farmers apply for a permit through us to pick up a certain number of fertilized eggs,” Linscombe says. “The farmer then pays the landowner for the eggs.
Today, Louisiana has about 50 alligator farms, with about 20 producing the bulk of the inventory. In spite of what you are led to believe from TV’s “Swamp People,” around 90 percent of our harvested alligators come from farms.
Our state’s biggest alligators do come from the wild, and over 70 percent of the wild harvest is male. “Males yield much larger pieces of hide, so they bring more money,” says Linscombe. “And trappers target canals where the males hide.”
There is no minimum size for wild harvest, but the harvested animal must be hooked. Bait is usually chicken leg quarters set on a hook 2 feet over the water. “And hunters ‘dispatch’ their catch with a rifle the second the alligator head surfaces. That process is not nearly as dramatic and stressful as you see on TV.”
For the wild hunt, LDWF issues hunting tags to landowners, and landowners give out tags to hunters. “To get tags, landowners must show proof of ownership. Qualifying also depends on density of nests. When we give landowners tags, they can give them out to whoever they want.”
A lottery system for hunting is used on state and federal lands. “LDWF gives 3 tags per person, and we give out several thousand tags,” says Linscombe. “Tags remain on a harvested alligator until it’s made into a product.”
The alligator harvest lottery features wetland locations throughout Louisiana, including a surprising number of northern parishes. Hunting season opens on the east side of the state the last Wednesday in August. The west side opens the first Wednesday in September. “The season lasts 60 days,” Linscombe says of the popular sport. “But the legal limit is usually wiped out in two weeks.”
Hunters and farmers can dress their own alligators, or they can send them to one of the state’s many processing facilities, which distribute through channels that web throughout the world. “Louisiana has quite a few meat processors,” Linscombe says. “But there aren’t many tanneries in the United States. Most are in Europe and Asia. Those cultures have been processing hides for hundreds of years.”
Marketable hides are first processed to the “crust” stage, which is leather that is cleaned, tanned, and shaved, and not dyed or finished. Crust skin can be stored indefinitely, or until a manufacturer buys a specific color and finish.
On the culinary front, thanks to TV chefs, alligator dishes are becoming more and more popular. In the U.S., a federal law only allows the commercial sale of gator meat that comes from farms.
What does alligator taste like? I hate to throw out the old cliché that this “exotic” meat tastes like chicken, but, well, it does. While the darker body meat can have a slight fishy taste, the white meat in the tail is pure low-fat, protein-packed deliciousness. So if you can’t afford that $30,000 purse, support our alligator industry by trying something from a restaurant or grocery store.
Do you have a Louisiana agriculture story or a recipe you’d like to share? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.
Makes 4 appetizer servings
1 pound boneless alligator, cut into 1-inch pieces
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons hot sauce
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1. Lightly flatten alligator pieces and dry with paper towels. Season lightly with Creole seasoning. Set aside while you heat 2 inches oil in a deep fryer to 350°F.
2. In a shallow bowl, combine flour, salt, and black pepper. In another shallow bowl beat together buttermilk, egg, and hot sauce. Pour bread crumbs into a third bowl.
3. Dredge alligator first in flour mixture, then in buttermilk mixture, and finally in bread crumbs. Gently place in hot oil and fry until golden brown and crispy, about 2-3 minutes. Drain and serve hot.
Alligator and Mushrooms in Wine Sauce
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds alligator, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning
½ stick butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef or chicken stock
½ cup tomato sauce
¼ cup sliced green onion, plus more for serving
For serving: hot cooked rice
1. Pat alligator dry. Combine with Creole seasoning and marinate in the refrigerator at least 2 hours and up to overnight. When ready to cook, melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and lightly brown alligator pieces. Remove alligator to a bowl as pieces brown.
2. To the pot, add oil, onion, celery, and bell pepper. Sauté until onion is translucent, about 7 minutes. Lower heat to medium, add flour, and stir 2 minutes. Add garlic, mushrooms, and wine and sauté 1 minute. Stir in stock and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook 5 minutes.
3. Add the browned alligator and any accumulated juices. Cover the pot and simmer until meat is tender, about 35 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook, or the meat will be tough.) Stir in sliced green onion and check for seasoning. Serve over rice and garnish with more green onion.
Makes 4 servings
Can be made 2 days ahead (and it actually tastes better that way.) To easily make ground alligator, grind half-frozen meat in a food processor.
1 pound alligator, finely diced or ground
½ pound ground pork
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, minced
2 cups chicken stock
16 ounces tomato sauce
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon dried, ground chipotle pepper
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed (optional)
For serving: Fritos, shredded cheese, and minced onion
1. In a heavy-bottomed pot set over medium-high heat, combine alligator, pork, olive oil, onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, and jalapeno. Sauté until alligator and pork are cooked through, about 7 minutes.
3. Stir in stock, tomato sauce, chili powder, salt, cumin, paprika, and chipotle pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower to a bare simmer. Cook, covered and stirring occasionally, until meat is tender, about 1 hour. Add more stock if chili gets too thick. Stir in optional beans and simmer 15 more minutes. Serve in bowls and top with Fritos, cheese, and onion.