Florida's Best Iguana Meat Chef Makes Tasty Iguana Carnitas Tacos

Amy Freeze never tried the finished product, but her 11-year-old son did.

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Apr 12 2015, 5:59am

Amy Freeze, Iguana Cooking Champion. All photos courtesy of Freeze

Floridians get a lot of shit for being from Florida. I mean, yes, Florida is weird as hell and a bunch of pretty sick folks live there. But the state is also a place of tireless creativity. Case in point: A recent cooking competition in Sebring, which celebrated the grand opening of Sebring Wholesale Meats, a new exotic butcher shop that specializes in kangaroo and camel, among other carnivorous delicacies. Recently, the store called upon the citizens of the cozy South Central Florida town to try their hand at cooking up a special meat: iguana.

Five teams of brave chefs did their finest with the hunk of reptile dealt to them. But it was local English teacher and cooking competition vet Amy Freeze who rose as Florida's new Iguana Cooking Champion with her Iguana Carnitas. VICE spoke with Freeze about the creature's surprising bone structure, their free-roaming takeover of a certain South Florida island, and what the fuck your house smells like after slow-cooking an iguana overnight.

VICE: When you're not stewing iguana flesh, what do you do for a living?
Amy Freeze: I'm a full-time English teacher and I'm actually a World Food Championship competitor. This year the Championship is moving to Kissimmee.

Besides iguana carnitas, what are some of the wilder dishes you've created?
I'm a dessert person. I don't normally do anything wild. The iguana is the wildest thing I've ever taken on. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things. I originally thought it was a joke.

Did you have any kind of experience cooking different kinds of reptiles? Like gator?
No! Well, being in Florida, yes, I've cooked gator. But technically, you're just dealing with frying gator tails. You're not doing anything unusual. I've been to restaurants that do unusual things, but cooking iguana? I had to google it just to see what the bone structure was going to be like.

There are no nice words for what that animal smells like.

I mentioned I was going to do this, and a student of mine piped in very quickly and said that her mother cooks iguana all the time. So I started picking her brain to find out about the iguana ribs—the ribs aren't bone. They're cartilage. Any other reptile, you have meat on the bones, on the ribs. On the iguana, there's nothin'. The tail is actually very strangely put together. There's tons of meat on the tail. It's just a weird little critter.

Is it sort of like cooking a fish with all the tiny little bones?
No, but that's what I expected. When Kevin [Shutt, the shop's owner] gave [the iguanas] to us, they were clean and in a bag, frozen. The tail was in there. The dry carcass was in there—as gross as that sounds. When the tail was not attached, the body itself had the musculature of a rabbit. So I approached that part like a rabbit. When I got to the tail, it was... more like a fish backbone, a flat blade of bones that run down that tail. There's tons of meat on each side.

I took my big meat cleaver, cut it into pieces—the whole body in half, so I could cram the whole thing into a pot. Cut the tail in half, so I could put that in there with it. Then I had to boil it for over an hour, just so I could get it tender enough to pick it apart. They're made of some very tough meat.

How did Kevin get a hold of the iguanas? Are they raised domestically? I know some run wild in South Florida.
The island I grew up on in South Florida, Boca Grand, is actually inundated with iguanas. We have so many iguanas there, there's somebody whose his entire job is to ride around on a golf cart, shoot them, and then dispose of them.

Iguana meat

The iguanas that are being brought into the country are coming from Puerto Rico. Everything that I've read says that they figured out how to "harvest" them.

How did you prepare the meat? What spices did you use?
We weren't real sure what to do. My husband had the idea to turn it into something a little more expected. Once I deboned [the iguana] and put it in the Crock-Pot, we used something called mojo marinade. We use it on pork a lot. It's a bottled marinade, made by Goya. It's full of garlic, pepper, a lot of sour orange—sour orange helps break down protein. You can put sour orange on just about anything, it'll break it down. I poured an entire bottle on top of the iguana, turned the Crock-Pot on, and let it cook all night.

Low heat?
Yeah. I just put the Crock-Pot on low and went to bed. It cooked from nine o'clock in the evening until about five o'clock the next morning. I drained as much of the "juice" as possible and headed to the cook-off. We served it in flour tortillas with a little bit of onion and pepper and I had three different sauces made up. We technically sold out. We handed out every iguana taco we had.

Did cooking iguana in a Crock-Pot leave any sort of smell in your house?
There are no nice words for what that animal smells like. I thought it might have just been [my experience], but the other teams mentioned the same thing about the smell. It was just not a good thing. I won't be cooking iguana ever in my house again. If we're cooking iguana again, it will be done outside.

What did the final product end up tasting like?
I have no idea.

You didn't try it?
No. In all fairness, my 11-year-old son was very quick to go in there and grab some to try. He said it basically tasted like chicken. My husband tried it. He [also] said it tasted like chicken—he said it was like a very bland chicken. But judging by what everyone said, they liked it. I just couldn't bring myself to try it after I'd smelled it.

Shutt says although the shop does not regularly carry iguana, with enough requests, he promises to make an order. In the meantime, you can purchase Burmese python fillets, alpaca, and yak flat irons. You can also follow Freeze's continued culinary adventures on her blog.

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