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From: Jon Koplik12/1/2023 1:30:34 AM
   of 139
 
WSJ -- Your Thanksgiving Alligator Is Ready for Pickup .........................................

WSJ

Your Thanksgiving Alligator Is Ready for Pickup

Why be a boar? More hosts opt for exotic meats this holiday; ‘a bear Manwich.’

Nov. 21, 2023



An alligator ‘tastes like alligator,’ says a brand ambassador for Meadow Creek, a manufacturer of smokers and grills.

By Charles Passy

Like countless Americans, Kimberly Darling celebrates Thanksgiving with a bountiful, home-cooked feast. Her take on the holiday has a swampy twist: She forgoes the familiar turkey in favor of an alligator she traps on one of her many hunting expeditions, then she brines, smokes and wraps it in bacon before serving her guests.



Pass the gator, please

"People walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a literal alligator. What did we sign up for?’” she says.

But the mild taste and tender texture can’t be beat, adds Darling, a 40-year-old nurse anesthetist who lives near Chicago.

While turkey remains the star of the Thanksgiving holiday table, enterprising hosts are adding a gamy touch to the meal, including antelope, camel, kangaroo, elk, squirrel and bear, along with gator.



Kimberly Darling with an alligator she trapped. She prepares one each year for Thanksgiving.

For those not partial to hunting down their main course, meat providers are selling the alternative fare, and they say holiday orders are brisk. At S. Ottomanelli & Sons, a butcher shop in the New York City borough of Queens that dates back some 60 years, exotic meats account for at least 25% of Thanksgiving orders, with kangaroo, ostrich and elk being among the favorites. One of the biggest challenges: sourcing python and rattlesnake, which are also on the list of holiday choices.

“There’s a big demand,” says proprietor Frank Ottomanelli. Many customers today, “they want something different.”

Ralph Forgione, a retiree who lives in Syosset, a locale on Long Island, says his family does have a turkey on the Thanksgiving table, but they like to complement it with everything from venison to elk. “We want to keep to tradition, but we also want to expand it,” he says. Forgione is a particular fan of elk, which he describes as having a red-meat taste, but with an unexpected sweetness.

Atypical meats don’t come cheap. At S. Ottomanelli & Sons, a pound of python steak runs $49.95 and an “exotic meats assortment package” costs $299.

For Ed Butler, a 58-year-old outdoorsman who calls Wolfeboro, N.H., home and owns a heating company, the Thanksgiving holiday is about serving guests a cornucopia of game meats, all of which he has hunted himself. On this year’s menu: bear, venison and squirrel.




Ed Butler processing a bear's leg. He makes a twist on Sloppy Joes -- with bear meat.

Sure, game meats can be a bit strong, says Butler, who dubs himself the “Working Class Woodsman” and does cooking videos. But it is all about how they’re processed and prepared. He makes his bear more palatable for Thanksgiving by fixing it as what amounts to a sloppy Joe—or a “bear Manwich,” as he likes to call it -- with the ground meat generously seasoned.

“It’s my wife’s favorite meal,” he says.

Antelope is among the Thanksgiving to-go options at Dai Due, an Austin, Texas restaurant with a companion hunting school. One of the dishes featuring it is antelope salami, which is yet another way to make a game meat feel slightly more familiar.

Austin resident Kim Famighetti, who works as a real-estate agent, has placed an order for the item, which she plans to feature as part of her holiday spread. Famighetti, 54, is a fan of antelope—she even served it to her wedding guests 15 years ago. And the salami format puts it on more accessible terrain. “It’s not crazy or anything,” she says.

With alligator, there are some who will deep-fry portions of the meat or feature it in a stew. But on Thanksgiving, it is indeed often about presenting the Cajun-country favorite whole for dramatic effect, with feet and head still attached.

“A whole gator is a jaw-dropper to say the least,” says Johnny Thomas, who handles marketing for the Louisiana-based CreoleFood.com.

The company, an online purveyor of just what its name implies, says it sees a huge uptick in orders for whole alligator tied to the holiday. This year, it has shipped out more than 1,100 of the skinned creatures for Thanksgiving, priced anywhere from $114.99 to $699.



Brothers Mike Ottomanelli, left, and Frank Ottomanelli. Frank sells an assortment of exotic meats in the family’s butcher shop in Queens.

Carlos Washington says he wants to shake things up for the holidays, so he is among those ordering an alligator from CreoleFood.com for his family’s Thanksgiving gathering in Sacramento, Calif. Washington, 36, whose work involves assisting disabled people, has had alligator many times before and evokes the common refrain that it can taste a bit like chicken.

This will be a first-time alligator experience, however, for some of Washington’s family members.

“My mom and grandmother are scared of it,” he says. “And my daughter called it a swamp monster.”

At the very least, smoking a whole alligator can be easier than smoking a whole pig, says Lavern Gingerich, a brand ambassador for Meadow Creek, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of smokers and grills. Gingerich says by virtue of the alligator’s leanness, the cooking time can be much quicker.

What’s alligator like? Gingerich makes comparisons to everything from pork loin to chicken and wild turkey, but ultimately offers this description: “It tastes like alligator.”

Those who track sales of exotic meats point to signs of growth on a year-round basis. One trade report, dubbed the Power of Meat, says annual sales of exotics, based on figures from December 2022 supplied by market researcher Circana, are up 21.8% over 2019 figures and have reached $120 million.

Culinary and history experts note that as odd as it might seem to serve alligator, antelope or other exotic meat for the holiday, it actually hews closer to tradition than a commercial-grade supermarket turkey. Pilgrims and Native Americans who marked the harvest celebration we call Thanksgiving today feasted on whatever they could hunt or gather, and wild game was bound to be on the menu.



Meats including alligator, elk and boar at S. Ottomanelli & Sons.

Turkeys still rule contemporary Thanksgiving celebrations, with the National Turkey Federation estimating Americans will consume 40 million big birds on the holiday. Many culinary professionals say they’re doubtful of how far the demand for exotic meats on Thanksgiving will go.

Count Pat LaFrieda, a prominent New Jersey-based meat purveyor, among the skeptics. LaFrieda carries venison and alligator as part of his namesake company’s product lineup, but he says it is risky to serve guests something like that on a day when they’re expecting the comfort of the familiar.

“I wouldn’t gamble my holiday meal on it. You’re going to run out of stuffing, that’s for sure,” he says.

Ironically, the biggest turkey fans out there may be alligators, according to Brandon Fisher, a spokesperson for Gatorland, an alligator-filled theme park in Orlando, Fla. There is a long history at the attraction of feeding whole turkeys to the gators around Thanksgiving. They chomp them up in a few bites, bones and all.

“When we pull out these turkeys, their eyes light up,” Fisher says.

Copyright © 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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