ORLANDO, Fla. – If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ’em.
It’s an old saying, one that could easily have originated here in the Sunshine State where invasive species aren’t limited to baby-oiled tourists and blue-haired retirees. There are hundreds of them, in fact, wreaking havoc from the reefs to the treetops, causing millions of dollars of damage and killing native species both directly and indirectly.
One way to solve the problem — or at least curtail it — is putting them on your personal menu, but most are inaccessible. Unless, of course, you’re willing to get a little blood on your hands. Ron Ritter’s hunting clients are.
The National Pork Board called it “the other white meat” in a late ’80s ad campaign, but wild boar is nothing like what you’ll find in your supermarket butcher’s cooler, says Ritter, who won’t suffer store-bought meat anymore.
“Wild boar is more like red meat,” he says, and when clients at his I Live Wild operation don’t want the meat they’ve killed (about half, he estimates), he’s happy to have it. “Oh, heck, no, you don’t waste this meat whatsoever!”
Ritter, a Wisconsin native, hosts hunters on a near-100-acre piece of property near Dade City. He takes folks out for turkey and deer, but wild boar and hog hunts are the operation’s core.
There are about half a million wild hogs in Florida, spread out over every county in the state. Though invasive, they’ve been making themselves at home here for hundreds of years. And they’ve been wrecking up the joint like rock stars on a 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 root up biking trails and decimate crops overnight.
“It’s incredibly good meat,” says Ritter. “You’ll get the backstraps (tenderloins are small in a wild hog), sometimes the ribs are worth taking and four legs, depending on where the animal is shot.” But it’s harder than it looks. “The hogs are smart, they have good noses and hear everything.”
Recently, a few clients waited in the brush until 10 p.m. before seeing anything.
“Five hogs came sneaking out of the swamp, but no one could get a good shot,” Ritter says. “They had a blast, a great adrenaline rush, but no meat that night.”
I Live Wild hunts aren’t “guaranteed” as in some places, where the animals have far less land to roam.
“That’s not even hunting to me,” says Ritter, who likens it to shooting fish in a barrel, “it’s expensive grocery shopping.”
Wild boar meat is also available in markets and online, it just won’t be meat from Florida. For that, you’ll need a gun. Or a friend willing to use one and share the spoils.
Hogs have two litters of up to 13 babies each year, sometimes three. They’re ferocious. And the few predators they do have are leery.
“The hunts here really do help the environment,” says Ritter. “And (the hogs) taste incredible on the spit.”
This year on Valentine’s Day, Jayna Corns had her “soul set on fire.” You could call that couple goals, though her husband had less to do with it than the 13-foot Burmese python they encountered while on a walk through the Everglades.
The Corns’ are new Floridians, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers by hobby. Their recent move from West Virginia to Fort Lauderdale has breathed oxygen into Corns’ fire for fauna, in particular exotic varieties native to her new home state. The Burmese python, of course, is not one of them.
The first documented sighting of this invasive species came in 1979. Since then, the voracious eaters have been consuming their way through the Everglades’ welcoming ecosystem. When Corns hikes here in the evenings, the pythons’ presence is notable.
The glades are quiet, she says.
“We’d visit here when I was a kid, and there would be raccoons, possum and birds,” she tells me. “The other night I was out there for hours, and all we saw were frogs and one owl.”
Corns now stalks the Glades as an Everglades Avenger alongside Florida’s most famous python hunter, Donna Kalil, with whom she logged her first spot and catch in May — a five-footer.
“She is so knowledgeable and nice and humble,” Corns says of Kalil, a python elimination specialist for the South Florida Water Management District. “She has taught me so much about pythons.”
Including how to eat them.
Pythons — along with other invasive-but-edible animals, including iguanas and the voracious bullseye snakeheads, a fish native to Southeast Asia — aren’t available on the menus of any restaurants, but that doesn’t stop enterprising Floridians, fisherfolk and hunters from getting a taste.
They just have to be proactive.
Kalil baked her Christmas cookies with python eggs this year, and Corns would testify 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.
Perhaps, but it’s a taste the general public won’t be offered anytime in the near future.
“The South Florida Water Management District is not endorsing or condoning the human consumption of Everglades python meat,” an official wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “Many studies are underway to determine whether or not it is safe to eat.”
Past studies have shown Everglades pythons to have high levels of mercury.
Kalil has a home test kit. She’s found that the larger and older the snake, the more likely its levels are too high for consumption.
“The seven-and-a-half footers are my favorite,” she says. “Not one of those came back hot.”
Since taking up the practice, she’s made chili with the meat and enjoyed the eggs hard-boiled with sriracha. She’s made mojo jerky and takes it with her on hunts and hikes.
Kalil only eats python about once a month, and stresses that people should wait for the studies about its safety to come back before considering it for themselves, but Corns’ — who wanted to utilize the snake she caught — was curious. After catching a 9-footer last week, she made Cajun-fried python liver and dashed it with hot sauce, then fried its heart in bacon grease.
“It had the consistency of skirt steak, almost,” she said. “It was like eating bacon-wrapped filet.”
Lionfish used to appear on Florida menus more often, but suppliers report that whatever isn’t being purchased hyper-locally is often acquired by larger markets, like Whole Foods.
The Dr. Phillips’ location’s seafood pros say it’s highly seasonal; they hadn’t had it in for a year. Nor had the Orlando or Port Canaveral Grills locations, which note lionfish dinners on their website, but that folks should follow them on Facebook for its availability. Their most recent post about having it was from 2018.
That could be because like Florida citrus, it garners bigger dollars in other states. But it could also be because conservationists are finding success with lionfish derbies, organized to reward teams for getting as many of these deadly-beautiful creatures off the reef as they can.
Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s 2021 Earth Day Lionfish Derby culled 494 of them off the coast of Key Largo, where 14 spearfishing teams competed and the native species of the Keys’ waters won. They’ve been running a derby here for 12 years. The events help educate the public, gather intel for science and promote the commercial market. DeLand chef Hari Pulapaka was at the forefront, though. The founder/co-owner of Cress Restaurant began serving these spiny sea creatures back in 2013.
“I held many dinners at Cress where I showcased underutilized species, and every time I did one of those events, I served lionfish,” says Pulapaka, who hosted cooking demos at Whole Foods, preparing tastes and teaching shoppers how to prepare the filets, which are quite delicate.
“If you look at them with hot eyes and it’s going to cook,” he jokes. “It’s like any other mild, white, flaky fish.”
Pulapaka served lionfish at the 2018 James Beard Awards, where he was a featured chef.
“I took (now Monroe executive chef) Josh Oakley with me, and we brought 150 pounds of lionfish to serve to 1,000 people as part of a tasting dish,” he says. “I like it as a quick sauté or as a ceviche, and a favorite preparation at Cress was as an herb-crusted fish of the day, not unlike a snapper preparation. It’s also great in tacos.”
REEF has a cookbook for lionfish — there are several on the market — and Jim Polston of King’s Seafood (5999 S. Ridgewood Ave. in Port Orange) says they get it in from local divers every week.
“It’s very popular,” he says. “Once people try it, they keep coming back.”