Python-egg Christmas cookie dough. Florida snake hunter-chef makes a special holiday treat
Burmese python may not be the first food of choice for festive holidays - or the second, third, or fourth.
For starters, it's snake. Due to the potentially high levels of mercury, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the health risks posed by consuming the most destructive invasive species in South Florida.
But a South Florida python hunter experimented with what some have dubbed the "chicken of the glades" - preparing meals, snacks, and even candy that could give the holiday that distinctive flavor of South Florida. How about python jerky, a plate of constrictor and semolina for breakfast, or maybe a nice Christmas cookie whipped with snake and egg yolk batter?
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"I really like to do jerky because it's a great snack, but the meat is also good for pasta sauce and sliders, especially when mixed with something other meat like pork," said Donna Kalil, a veteran python hunter who since then only bagged snake number 470 in early 2017, it participated in the South Florida Water Management District's python elimination program.
Python jerks with barbecue sauce "Swamp Boys", made by python hunter Donna Kalil. A bit rubbery but tasty.
During a hunt last week, Kalil shared some of her bucking that she chews to refuel during the often 10-hour days in the Everglades in search of the stealthy snakes. A new batch of her own secret barbecue sauce, which she dubbed the Everglades Boys, proved too difficult. But a batch of mojo was just right: tough on the inside, slightly crispy on the outside.
Her top cooking tip: "Don't overcook python. It's really difficult to get it right. It takes practice."
Her Health Council: She uses a home test kit to check the levels of mercury in meat and only cooks small snakes, which are likely to have the lowest pollutant levels. This is still a big snake as they can reach six feet or more in their first year.
Mercury is naturally found in the earth, but it can also accumulate in marine waters and in places like the Everglades and enter the atmosphere mainly through fossil fuel burning and mining, and travel long distances before settling. Once deposited, certain microorganisms can convert mercury into more dangerous methylmercury, a highly toxic form that bioaccumulates in a process known as bioaccumulation in fish, shellfish, and animals that eat fish.
For this reason, many coastal and freshwater fish in Florida, including largemouth bass, have already recommended consumption limits by the Florida Department of Health.
But in general, the larger the predator, the more mercury is likely to accumulate. And that makes pythons a problem as they get massive - more than 18 feet and 100 pounds - and eat almost everything else in the Everglades, including the occasional alligator.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Department of Health are jointly conducting a study of mercury contamination in pythons caught by government contractors in Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Collier, Palm Beach, Hendry, and Lee counties. The aim is to develop usage guidelines for Burmese pythons in South Florida so that the public can understand the risks before putting snakes on their plates.
Kalil doesn't eat python every day as it is still unclear how contaminated the snakes are. When she does this, she likes to cook the meat under pressure for a few minutes before using it in roasts or in pasta sauce.
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