ORLANDO, Florida – If you can’t beat them, eat them.
It’s an old saying, which could easily have its origin here in the Sunshine State, where invasive species aren’t limited to oiled-up tourists and blue-haired retirees. There are hundreds, in fact, wreaking havoc from reefs to tree tops, causing millions of dollars in damage and killing native species both directly and indirectly.
One way to solve the problem – or at least reduce it – is to put them in your personal menu, but most of them are inaccessible. Unless, of course, you’re willing to get some blood on your hands. Ron Ritter’s hunter clients are.
The National Pork Board called it “the other white meat” in a late 1980s ad campaign, but the wild boar looks nothing like what you find in your supermarket butcher’s cooler, says Ritter, who will no longer suffer from store-bought meat. .
âWild boar looks more like red meat,â he says, and when the customers of his I Live Wild farm don’t want the meat they killed (about half, he estimates), he is happy to have it. “Oh, damn it, no you’re not wasting that meat at all!” “
Ritter, a native of Wisconsin, hosts hunters on a nearly 100-acre property near Dade City. He takes people for the turkey and the deer, but the boar and pork hunts are at the heart of the operation.
There are about half a million feral pigs in Florida, spread across counties across the state. Although invasive, they have settled here for hundreds of years. And they destroyed the joint like rock stars on a pipe bender with $ 1.5 billion in property damage nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, much of it in the Sunshine State – where they uproot bike paths and decimating crops overnight.
âIt’s incredibly good meat,â says Ritter. “You will get the backstraps (fillets are small in a wild pig), sometimes the ribs are worth taking and four legs, depending on where the animal is slaughtered.” But it’s harder than it looks. âPigs are smart, they have a good nose and can hear everything. “
Recently, a few customers have waited in the brush until 10 p.m. before seeing anything.
âFive pigs snuck out of the swamp, but no one got a good shot,â says Ritter. “They had a blast, a great adrenaline rush, but no meat that night.”
I Live Wild hunts are not “guaranteed” as in some places, where animals have much less land to cover.
“To me it’s not even hunting,” says Ritter, who likens it to pulling fish out of a barrel, “it’s an expensive grocery store.”
Wild boar meat is also available in markets and online, it just won’t be Florida meat. For this you will need a gun. Or a friend willing to use one and share the loot.
Pigs have two litters of up to 13 babies each year, sometimes three. They are fierce. And the few predators they have are suspicious.
âThe hunts here really help the environment,â says Ritter. “And (the pigs) taste amazing on the spit.”
This year, on Valentine’s Day, Jayna Corns had her “soul on fire”. You might call them goals, even though her husband was less there than the 13-foot Burmese python they encountered on a walk in the Everglades.
The Corns are new Floridians, wildlife enthusiasts and recreational photographers. Their recent move from West Virginia to Fort Lauderdale breathed oxygen into Corns Fire for wildlife, especially exotic varieties native to its new home state. The Burmese python, of course, is not one of them.
The first documented sighting of this invasive species dates back to 1979. Since then, ravenous eaters have made their way through the welcoming Everglades ecosystem. When Corns hikes here in the evening, the presence of the pythons is noticeable.
The glades are calm, she said.
âWe used to come here when I was a kid, and there were raccoons and possums and birds,â she tells me. “The other night I was there for hours, and all we saw was frogs and an owl.”
Corns now stalks the Glades as the Everglades Avenger alongside Florida’s most famous python hunter, Donna Kalil, with whom she recorded her first spot and caught in May – a five-footer.
âShe’s so knowledgeable, kind and humble,â Corns said of Kalil, python removal specialist for the South Florida Water Management District. “She taught me so much about pythons.”
Including how to eat them.
Pythons – along with other invasive but edible animals, including iguanas and the voracious snakeheads, a fish native to Southeast Asia – aren’t available on any restaurant’s menus, but they aren’t. not prevent Floridians, fishermen and enterprising hunters from having tasted.
They just need to be proactive.
Kalil made his Christmas cookies with python eggs this year, and Corns testified that no one would know the difference.
“I tried a chocolate chip one while we were out the other day, and it was delicious!” she raved.
Maybe, but it’s a taste that the general public won’t be offered anytime soon.
“The South Florida Water Management District does not endorse or approve the human consumption of Everglades python meat,” an official wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “There are many studies being done to determine whether or not it is safe to eat.”
Previous studies have shown that Everglades pythons have high levels of mercury.
Kalil has a home test kit. She found that the bigger and older the snake, the more likely its levels are too high to eat.
âThe seven and a half footers are my favorite,â she says. “None of them came back hot.”
Since she started practicing, she has been making chili with the meat and enjoying the hard-boiled eggs with sriracha. She’s done jerky mojo and takes it with her on hunts and hikes.
Kalil only eats python about once a month and points out that people should wait until studies on her safety come back before considering it on their own, but Corns – who wanted to use the snake she caught – was curious. After catching a 9 foot last week, she made Cajun fried python liver and drizzled it with hot sauce, then fry her heart in bacon fat.
âIt was the consistency of a skirt steak, almost,â she said. “It was like eating filet wrapped in bacon.”
Lionfish was appearing on Florida menus more often, but vendors report that anything that isn’t bought hyper-locally is often acquired by larger markets, like Whole Foods.
Seafood professionals at Dr. Phillips’ location say it’s very seasonal; they hadn’t had it for a year. Nor will the Orlando or Port Canaveral Grills locations, which rate lionfish dinners on their website, but people should follow on Facebook for availability. Their most recent post on credit was from 2018.
This could be because, like citrus fruits from Florida, they make more dollars in other states. But it could also be because environmentalists are having success with lionfish derbies, organized to reward teams for removing as many of these deadly creatures from the reef as possible.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s 2021 Earth Day Lionfish Derby shot down 494 off the coast of Key Largo, where 14 spearfishing teams competed against each other and species native to the waters of the Keys won. They’ve been running a derby here for 12 years. The events help educate the public, gather information for science, and promote the commercial market. DeLand leader Hari Pulapaka was at the forefront, however. The founder / co-owner of Restaurant Cress started serving these thorny sea creatures in 2013.
“I have organized many dinners at the Cress where I have presented underutilized species, and every time I have organized one of these events I have served lionfish,” says Pulapaka, who hosted cooking demonstrations at Whole Foods, preparing tastes and teaching shoppers how to prepare fillets, which are quite delicate.
“If you look at them with burning eyes and it’s going to cook,” he jokes. “It’s like any other soft, white, flaky fish.”
Pulapaka served lionfish at the 2018 James Beard Awards, where he was a featured chef.
âI took (now Monroe’s executive chef) Josh Oakley with me, and we brought 150 pounds of lionfish to serve 1,000 people as part of a tasting dish,â he says. âI like it as a quick stir-fry or as a ceviche, and a favorite preparation at Cress was like a herb-crusted fish of the day, kind of like a snapper mix. It’s also great in tacos.
REEF has a lionfish cookbook – there are several on the market – and Jim Polston of King’s Seafood (5999 S. Ridgewood Ave. in Port Orange) says they get it from local divers every week.
âIt’s very popular,â he says. âOnce people try it, they keep coming back. “