Social media users expressed shock when photos of iguana meat for sale popped up on Facebook marketplace Wednesday, following a cold spell that caused the weather-worn creatures to fall from trees across South Florida.
But eating iguana meat is nothing new. In fact, it's a common delicacy in Mexico, Central and South America - and in trendy U.S. restaurants that cater to anyone craving a lizard entree.
Iguana gourmets in the U.S. are sometimes immigrants from other countries looking for a taste of home. Other times, they're just red-blooded Americans looking for something new - like the iguana "popcorn" nuggets once sold in Washington, D.C.
"People have been eating iguanas since at least 10,000 years ago, when humans reached the New World tropics. It was a readily available, not-too-dangerous food source. It's always been part of the diet," said William Kern, a professor at the University of Florida.
Iguana meat is high protein and low fat. It's well-suited for tacos, burritos, curries, soups, stews, gumbo and more, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The meat is thick, so it's often boiled for long periods of time to soften it up. Some even say it can cure colds and increase sex drive.
"When it's cooked, it's almost a white meat, like you might see with chicken or grouper. It's a mild-flavored meat - milder than alligator," Kern said.
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Aaron Phillips, now a student at the University of Alabama, grew up in South Florida eating iguana, frog legs and alligator.
"We had some neighbors from Trinidad. They would occasionally catch and cook iguanas. We'd be out riding bikes in the neighborhood, and they'd be out on the driveway and ask if we'd want a kebab," Phillips said. "It was the glory days."
Iguana meat initially weirded him out, Phillips said, but he soon realized the meat tasted like chicken.
"I've mentioned eating iguanas to homeowners before, and they're horrified," Kern said. "The whole thought of eating a big green lizard is beyond their experience or their comfort level."
It's open season on iguanas - in Florida and beyond
In countries throughout Latin America, iguanas are endangered and considered a luxury, particularly iguana eggs. But in the U.S., including in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the invasive species is a pesty problem.
Iguanas first came to Puerto Rico and Florida through the pet trade in the 1960s. Puerto Rico lays claim to a variety of iguana species, and Florida has three: the Mexican spiney-tailed iguana, the black spiney-tailed iguana and the green iguana, the most common species, which can weigh up to 30 pounds.
The night the iguanas fell: Cold snap chills Florida, and lizard meat is up for sale
In its natural habitat, the iguana has dozens of natural predators. But in its new territories, the iguanas does't have as many predators to keep its population in check. Instead, they're proliferating rapidly and wreaking havoc on the environment and infrastructure: They eat plants, damage crops, dig holes, erode seawalls and fall out of trees, hitting people and cars.
That's why the Fish and Wildlife Commission declared an open season on iguanas this past summer. As an invasive species, the iguana is not protected in Florida except by anti-cruelty law. So, if you see one on your property, you can humanely kill and eat the animal. The FWC even encourages it.
In Hollywood, Florida, Brian Wood, owner and founder of All American Gator Products, has a different solution to the iguana problem: He's pushing for approval to commercially sell processed iguana meat in the state. For the past three months, Wood has been selling the animals live, at around 400 pounds per week for $3 per pound. One week, he sold nearly 800 pounds, Wood said.
"It's definitely a product that people like and want, but there's a lot of red tape involved," Wood said.
In Puerto Rico, where there are more iguanas than people, the government launched a program in 2012 to kill and export as many of the lizards as possible. Many on the island have also tried to popularize iguana consumption, but residents haven't warmed to the idea, Rodriguez said.
"It's sort of a win-win situation. People get a good, very high protein content meat, and they're helping to eliminate an invasive species," Kern said.
Iguana popcorn? It's real
Wood's customers aren't the only ones eating iguana meat. Several markets around Washington, D.C., sell iguana meat shipped from El Salvador. A few years ago, one restaurant, Mio, even served iguana as stew, skewers and in "popcorn" form, much like a chicken nugget.
California-based Exotic Meat Markets imports iguana from Puerto Rico and distributes the meat skin-on, skinless and boneless, according to its website. Iguana sausage will cost you $14.99 a pound. A "jumbo" iguana? That's $259.99.
In Los Angeles, Oaxacan restaurant Sabores Oaxaqueños serves iguana in two ways: as a tamale, and in mole, a traditional Mexican marinade. In Coral Gables, Florida, Mexican restaurant Talavera Cocina Mexicana serves the lizard in a traditional soup called a pozole.
Rodriguez says he's seen photos of people consuming iguana meat in New Hampshire and Vermont, too.
"You have to really harvest it in the proper way, and slaughter it properly because normally it would have salmonella. In terms of cooking and preparing, it's just like when you prepare chicken and beef products. You have to keep the product from cross-contamination and cook it properly to the right temperature," said Amy Simonne, a food safety specialist at the University of Florida.
Rodriguez has cooked iguana as a stew with rice and beans, but he says the best iguana recipe is tacos.
"We actually fooled a couple friends and told them it was chicken stew," he said. "Some of them overreacted, and others were OK with it."
Rafael Joglar, a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico specializing in reptiles and amphibians, said he owns a book that includes 10 different recipes for preparing iguana. He's been doing research on iguanas for more than 15 years now.
"I have tried iguana twice. We hunted two of them, and one of the parents of my students cooked them," Joglar said. "It was done in his house, and I invited all my students. We had a stew with potatoes, and we ate the iguanas with white rice. It was delicious. We called it the iguana party. It's good for you, and it's tasty."
"Several years after that, a paper wanted me to come to a restaurant one hour away from San Juan to try meats from different countries - kangaroo, ostrich. This guy was a popular, famous chef. So, I said, if you convince this guy to cook an iguana for me, then I'm willing to try. So he did."
He said eating iguanas might actually help solve a problem or two.
"Invasive species are complicated in Puerto Rico, and in all parts of the world ... We need to convince the people that iguana meat is good for you. It's a well-known principle that, if you have a problem with a species, eat them."
But, overall, he said, he feels bad for the iguanas.
"I don't feel very happy about killing iguanas. I'm not a hunter. I'm a bit disgusted about the idea of killing an iguana, the same way I'm disgusted by the idea of killing a chicken or a pig," Joglar said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Falling iguanas prompt meat sales: Do people eat chicken of the trees?