Friday, January 31, 2014

Day 264 - Eating Alligator

I have never eaten alligator. While trying a unique food for the first time would usually be reserved for a “Tasty Tuesday” in my “I have never...” year, I decided I would make an exception to that rule this evening to join my Sister, Sam, and her family for one of their family favorites, dinner at Crawfish Junction in Milford, Wisconsin. This decision was largely a result of two things. First, I have always been curious about alligator meat, and Crawfish Junction was the only restaurant in close proximity to my home that served the meal. Second, as unbelievable as it may seem, I have never simply gone out with my Sister and her family alone. Sure, we have eaten together at broader family events, but we never set aside time to simply meet up as brother and sister and spend some time together with her, my brother in-law, my niece, and my nephew. It was a fact I was somewhat ashamed to discover, and given my efforts to try to be more involved with my family as a part of my “I have never...” year, I wanted to make sure I made time for such an event. As a result, I cleared off some time in my calendar and made plans to join my Sister and her family this evening to tackle another new experience in my 365 day journey.

After wrapping up my workday today, I quickly headed home to pick up Rachael and start the trip to Milford Junction. Luckily, a break in the persistent winter weather that has been gripping our area made for a relatively short trip. As approached the restaurant I was surprised to find our path winding through largely vacant county highways with little sign of any centralized community. All initial appearance seemed to indicate we would find a sleepy, quiet location at the end of our journey, which made me briefly question the likelihood of the restaurant having the alligator meat I sought. Regardless, we pressed on knowing my Sister wouldn’t have recommended the location if it didn’t have something special to offer.

A Wisconsin kind of place...
Coming into the last bend of our journey, Rachael and I crossed over a river to find rows of cars occupying every open space along the road. Stunned by the sudden appearance of so many vehicles, we continued down the road slowly until our eyes caught the glow of a lively establishment tucked among a half of a dozen darkened buildings. A dimly lit wooden sign reading “Crawfish Junction” adorned the top of the location showing the only signs of life, which made it obvious all of the vehicles lining the road around us were there because of the restaurant. “Wow... Popular place, huh?” I said as we drove past the building in pursuit of a place to park. Rachael sat silent for a moment as she looked over the crowd of parked vehicles continuing down the edges of the road. “Yeah, this is crazy,” she said, breaking her silence as I turned the car back to make another pass.

Eventually, our second trip past Crawfish Junction resulted in us finding a parking spot very near the bridge that had led us to the location. Eager to get inside and learn what gave the location such broad appeal, Rachael and I promptly exited the car and found our way to the restaurant entrance. Once inside, we were greeted by a bustling, boisterous crowd of patrons occupying nearly every inch of space in the building. Chatter and laughter between sips from drinks and bites of food flowed freely from the people around us as we found our way through the crowd and toward the familiar sight of my Sister and her family. Stationed at a small bar near the back of the building, the group was quick to greet us when Rachael and I squeezed our way back to their location. At the sight of us my Sister leaned back on her stool with a beaming smile and yelled over the crowd, “Welcome to Crawfish Junction!” It was apparent from her remark the throngs of people around us were nothing new to her, but, to me, the mass of people that seemingly came from nowhere was absolutely stunning.

Here we go...
Our group made some light conversation as we waited for a table in the restaurant’s dining room to clear for our meal. Despite the substantial crowd, we found ourselves being guided to a table within minutes of our arrival. After winding through the quirky layout of the building and climbing some stairs to the dining room we quickly settled in at our table.  As we prepared for our evening meal we looked over the menu and chatted a bit about the unique variety of entrées offered by the restaurant. It had only been minutes into our time at Crawfish Junction, but it was already obvious the night would offer plenty of experiences worth remembering.

Our group was quick to place our orders after arriving at our table, which led us into conversation and storytelling about the happenings in our lives. Although I was excited about the forthcoming experience eating the alligator tail I had ordered just moments earlier, I was simply happy at the time I had to spend with my Sister and her family. The opportunity gave us plenty of time to get caught up on life events, to talk about my niece and nephew’s academic and athletic endeavors, and to have plenty of laughs about some of our recent experiences. Those moments made it easy to see that spending time with my Sister and her family was far too infrequent, but I was happy to be spending those moments in their company. It was fun, and it was warming, which made it easy to decide there was no better way to spend a Friday night.

Fried gator
After a brief wait our server returned with our food and set down a plate of golden, fried nuggets of meat in front of me. At first glance, the entrée appeared no different than any order of popcorn chicken I had ever seen, but as I split one of the pieces I took note of the segmented, somewhat pliable texture of the off-white meat. It was clear I was looking at something uncommon and previously unfamiliar in my life; alligator meat. Despite the foreign nature of the food in front of me, the usual deep-fried crispiness that encased the alligator meat made it easy to dive into the meal. After popping open the lid of a “zippy alligator sauce” that had accompanied the meal, I stabbed a piece of the meat with my fork and dropped it into my mouth. Amid the familiar, mouth-watering taste of fried food and unique blend of tastes rolled over my tongue. The alligator meat separated easily in my mouth, revealing a taste somewhere between chicken and rich turkey and a texture somewhat similar to steak. Stated plainly, the alligator meat was delicious and indulgent. It was better than I ever anticipated it would be which made it easy to take down the rest of the meal.

As we wrapped up our dinner, I looked down to my empty plate and leaned back in my chair. Full to the brim, I knew I had eaten more than I should have, but the alligator was so delicious I couldn’t convince myself to stop. Acknowledging my movements, Sam turned her head my direction and smiled. “What did you think?” she asked with a bright, inquisitive tone. “...So good,” I muttered looking across the table, “It was great. I never expected it to be so good.” My Brother-in-law chuckled a bit at my remark, “Well, there’s a reason we come here,” he said with a smile. Given my experience and Rachael’s empty plate, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Was it good? The plate says it all...

A short while later, we brought our evening at Crawfish junction to a close and headed for the door. After saying our goodbyes for the evening, Rachael and I headed to our car with my nephew, Micah, who was staying in Madison for the weekend. On our drive home, I thought about tonight’s experience with alligator and how it compared to other experiences in my “I have never...” year. While it was easy to classify alligator as one of my favorite new foods from my year of new experiences, I quickly realized the time Rachael and I spent with my Sister and her family was truly what made the evening a special and memorable event. Frankly, such an experience was long overdue, and there is a lot to be said about the joy that comes with spending a little quality time with loved ones. Tonight was a good night, and finding a tasty new food only played a small part in that outcome.

The dinner crew

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