When I first stumbled into my hometown’s only Cajun restaurant, my expectations were low. Tucked into a converted strip mall behind the airport and a fish store that looked vaguely like a front for something, it seemed like the best I could hope for was avoiding food poisoning. Or, barring that, not to be haunted by some sort of undead swamp spirit, similar to the charmingly creepy illustration of an alligator in a top hat plastered beneath the plastic sign out front.
Last summer was a first in many ways: my first time eating an alligator, and the first time in living memory a Democrat had even attempted to campaign for Congress in my corner of ruby red Tennessee. (My district’s last Democrat in Congress was elected in 1878 — a good year for whiskey, which pairs well with watching every election since.) One of the campaign’s field directors had cajoled me into both canvassing and “alligator bites.” Not sure which sounded more painful, I settled on trying the latter first.
Fried alligator tastes like a cross between chicken and tuna. It has a soft, white meat you can pull apart with your fingers, similar to supermarket fish sticks. Its mouthfeel is distinctive with almond notes, according to an unrelated winery review I read in an airline magazine once. At the time, I felt vaguely guilty — weren’t they endangered? Or about to be? At least in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, several hundred miles from anywhere an alligator was supposed to be, it felt vaguely wasteful. But it was good.
In the autumn since, our candidate lost badly. Less predictably, my biology professor gave an impassioned lecture about how farming alligators helped save them from extinction. Sitting in her office one night beneath a bird skeleton and several prints from her travels to Madagascar, I learned that my strip mall-cum-Cajun place, however improbably, was playing a small part in saving a creature over two hundred million years old. And in class, I found my mind drifting back to fried alligator bites — soft, with a sea salt tang, and sizzling golden brown. It was only recently, however, that I discovered the real delicacy — fried Kool-Aid.
Fried Kool-Aid tastes almost good enough to justify living in the South. There’s just no other way to describe it. Like fried Oreos and other Appalachian gourmets, it’s a classic fair food. It reminds me of my childhood, of summer nights spent chasing fireflies, and the state fair at the start of September. It’s more bready than you would perhaps expect, and covered with a snowy dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Licking the sugar off my fingers, I can almost forget that Roy Moore is running for office again, and allegedly so is the former chair of the Tennessee Education Committee. (I say allegedly since, although he’s shed some crocodile tears over the allegations, I’m still not convinced anyone’s actually running our education system.)
In real estate, location is the most important thing. I’m not sure if it’s the same with restaurants, or if I went back there again I would find the storefront covered in ivy and realize I had been served by ghosts. There’s certainly something to be said for Southern Gothic allure, for the faint badge of pride that comes from seeing someone’s eyes widen when you tell them your favorite food is alligator. But I’ve learned over the years that simply living here is hard enough. So, order more dessert. Don’t listen to the white people on TripAdvisor who are terrified by even the slightest mention of voodoo. And most of all, eat fried food, even if you may live to regret it.