The Gator Finds a Place at the Tailgate

BATON ROUGE, La. — The members of Hoppy’s Corner Tiger Tailgate have gathered in some fashion at the same spot across the street from Tiger Stadium for nearly every Louisiana State University home football game since the 1970s. But their tradition of roasting whole alligators didn’t begin until about 12 years ago, as a way of teasing fans of the University of Florida Gators.

“I had to get it out of my ditch,” joked Lance Cortez, 41, of Thibodaux, La., on a chilly Saturday in October, as he rubbed Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning and garlic powder on a wild alligator he’d lugged to the tailgate in a cooler. A patch of skin left on its back spelled L.S.U.

Mr. Cortez’s gator and another, larger farm-raised one were tied down to a homemade rotisserie built with a windshield-wiper motor. The reptiles, their mouths stuffed with apples, would spin for hours over hot coals.

In Baton Rouge, where the food at the tailgate is almost as important as the game, alligator — chargrilled, blackened, fried, in a stew or roasted whole — is both a specialty and an opportunity to tease out-of-town Gators fans.

Mr. Folse preparing a whole alligator by rubbing in his spice blend.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

“I don’t think there’s more gator eaten than this weekend,” John Folse, a Louisiana chef and author of books on Cajun and Creole cuisine, said as he primed his own whole roasted alligator for the game, injecting the white-fleshed, mild-flavored meat with a brining liquid until it swelled, and dousing the alligator with beer.

Alligator meat, which looks and tastes (yes) like chicken, has always been a food source in Louisiana; its use as an ingredient dates back to the state’s Native American tribes. But across the country, it has become more popular as a novelty item on menus as modern farming methods have increased accessibility to the meat.

For years, wild alligators were often hunted for their hides — used in luxury goods — as well as their meat, and uncontrolled hunting led to a decline in the population. Alligator was classified as endangered in 1967 under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Management efforts in the 1970s and ’80s helped replenish wild alligator, and farms were created to produce more sustainable hides and meat.

“Trapping and alligator hunting and fishing, that’s what you had to make a living,” said Joe Autin, 56, a third-generation alligator hunter in Cut Off, La. “You didn’t have the oil field or lots of places to have jobs. You made a living off the land.”

Alligator hunting season runs from late August through October here, but when Hurricane Ida battered Louisiana in August, the marsh that Mr. Autin frequents was torn up, and this year, he hasn’t been able to make his usual living.

In the last 50 years, farming and hunting regulations have helped to increase the alligator population to about two million, from 100,000, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

A wild alligator struggles all its life in a fight for territory and food, Mr. Folse said, which makes its meat tougher. Farmed alligator is raised on a regular diet that it doesn’t have to work too much for. It is also slaughtered when it reaches a specific size, at least three feet long.

The farmed meat is now more reliably consistent than wild alligator. Processing facilities like Riceland Crawfish in Eunice, La., soften the meat even further using a mechanical tenderizer with rotary blades before distributing it to suppliers.

The most tender cuts of alligator come from the tail and jaw, Mr. Folse said. Texture is critical when cooking alligator; without special preparation, the meat can be chewy.

Doug Guillory and his sister, Holly Manuel, owners of Riceland Crawfish, process and prepare alligator. They’ve had an uptick in sales over the past 15 years.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Riceland Crawfish, as the name suggests, started off processing crawfish, said Doug Guillory, 43, an owner. But during the 1990s his father began to clean wild-caught alligator. Over the last 15 years, sales of alligator have become a significant portion of the family-owned business.

Most people eat alligator tail meat in bite-size pieces that are marinated, battered and deep-fried like a chicken nugget. But throughout Louisiana, alligator is eaten in dozens of other ways.

At Prejean’s, a Cajun restaurant in Lafayette, La., alligator legs are some of the biggest sellers year-round, said Matthew Mead, 36, the general manager. They are marinated in buttermilk for at least three hours, then breaded and fried like a chicken wing. The gator’s juices glisten, as someone bites through.

Roux 61, in Baton Rouge, revels in serving alligator in unconventional ways while paying homage to Louisiana’s food culture, said Joshua Hebert, 36, the restaurant’s chef and a managing partner. On game day, he served a blackened alligator taco special with locally made tortillas and pickled green tomatoes.

Roux 61, a restaurant in Baton Rouge, La., serves about 200 pounds of alligator during the Tigers-Gators game.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
Joshua Hebert, the chef and a managing partner of Roux 61, helps prepare a rich shrimp-and-alligator-sausage cheesecake and fried alligator daily.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
Blackened alligator tacos with pickled green tomatoes are served as a special at Roux 61 during the Tigers-Gators game.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Diners dip their fried gator bites into Roux sauce, the restaurant’s take on a mayo and ketchup-based Louisiana condiment that is typically paired with seafood.

Alligator has held a place in Native American life in this region for hundreds of years. In the origin story of its alligator clan, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, in the southwestern part of the state, tells how some members found an alligator stuck in the hole of a pond that had dried up. The alligator asked them to help it return to a nearby river, and promised that once it regained its strength there, it would reward them.

The alligator was so grateful, it asked to be made a part of the tribe’s culture. This gave the tribal members permission to name themselves after the alligator, creating a new Coushatta clan, said Eli Langley, 23, a tribal storyteller and activist familiar with the tribe’s history.

The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana mostly roasted alligators whole over a fire or deep-fried them in bear oil, said Kimberly Walden, 51, the tribal historic preservation officer. “Being as large as they were, they were a really convenient food source,” she said.

When French government officials tried to establish alliances with Native Americans in the area before Louisiana was a colony, Chitimachas provided them with an alligator feast, Ms. Walden said.

Cajuns, Acadian people from France who had been expelled from Canada, arrived in the late 1700s.“We always had this relationship of friendship and communal aspect with Cajuns,” said Mr. Langley of the Coushatta tribe. “It was almost an oppression kinship or something. We’d both been driven out of our lands. We shared traditions and our knowledge of the land.”

When the Chitimacha people were enslaved in the 1700s, a female tribal member struck an approaching alligator on the nose with a stick to get it to retreat, teaching the colonist who enslaved her that it wasn’t necessary to shoot the animal, Ms. Walden said.

Teaching outsiders how to hunt and eat alligators likely came naturally when someone inquired how the Chitimacha thrived off the land, Ms. Walden said. “We knew how to take care of ourselves,” she said. “We try not to toot our own horn, but logically, you come into an area you’re unfamiliar with, you’re going to need someone to help you survive.”

The swamp became a pantry for Cajuns and Creoles, Mr. Folse said. “If we kill it, we eat it,” he said, as he positioned and tied his seasoned alligator onto a wire cage to roast and smoke during the Tigers-Gators game.

Corey Landry and Wayne Knight at the Hoppy’s Corner Tailgate. Mr. Knight built the rotating alligator spit using a windshield motor.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
Whole alligators are seasoned with Creole seasoning and garlic powder before being cooked over hot coals. They were stuffed with an apple, and later, a beer can.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

In the days leading up to the game, Baton Rouge restaurants portion, tenderize and season double the amount of alligator they typically serve. While many also develop specials to appeal to football fans, they still give alligator a prominent place on the regular menu.

The Chimes, a restaurant across the street from L.S.U., sells at least 60 pounds of alligator on game day, as much as it would normally go through in about a week. A crowd waiting hours before kickoff ordered the alligator chili special and nuggets — fried, blackened or chargrilled.

Many cooks will tell you: One of the keys to making alligator tasty is to marinate it. At the Chimes, the tail meat is bathed for a day in soy sauce, granulated and chopped garlic, and orange juice. The marinade also tenderizes the meat.

“We do a lot of things well, and those are the things we try not to change,” said Brent McLellan, 46, the restaurant’s manager. Alligator has been one of the most popular items on the menu since the Chimes opened in 1986.

A bowl of alligator sauce piquante, a tomato-like stew with the reptile’s meat, served over rice at Hoppy’s Corner Tiger Tailgate.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

At Hoppy’s Corner Tiger Tailgate, people devoured deep-fried alligator nuggets and alligator sauce piquante, a tomato-based stew, served over rice, all afternoon, letting out a cheer each time L.S.U. scored a touchdown.

Howard Benoit, the aforementioned Hoppy, grew emotional as he recalled how his tailgates have evolved since he started them nearly 50 years ago. Mr. Benoit, 69, of Lafourche Parish, La., is known for inviting — and feeding — any football fan who comes by, even one rooting for the competing team.

“It came from just me throwing everything in a car, to this,” he said, recalling how he used to cook only pork sausage and boudin.

As the game drew to a close, the whole alligators kept cooking until they turned golden brown. Wayne Knight, 76, of Baton Rouge, who built the rotisserie, had sprayed apple juice on them throughout the day, to keep them moist until they were ready to be served to fans leaving the campus after the game.

It was his idea to roast alligators to taunt Gators loyalists. “The Florida fans enjoy it just as much as we do,” he said.

Lance Cortez, third from left, and other members of Hoppy’s Corner Tiger Tailgate sliced slivers of roasted alligator and fed it to fans after the Tigers won the game.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Some of them, like Derrick Andres, 49, of West Palm Beach, Fla., have befriended the tailgaters after several years of traveling to the games. Mr. Andres grabbed a bowl of Mr. Cortez’s alligator sauce piquante on his way to the stadium.

After the Gators lost this year’s game, Mr. Andres came right back to the tailgate, where members had taken out their pocketknives and sliced through the alligator, giving away slivers of the meat to fans walking by.

“Do you cook alligator for other teams?” Mr. Andres asked. Mr. Cortez said he didn’t. Laughing, Mr. Andres replied, “That’s even better.”

Recipe: Alligator Chili

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