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Rodent Infestation Antidote: Cream Sauce

Cuisine: As nutria thrash Louisiana's ecosystems, state cooks up a response. Chefs are willing, but diners are wary.

July 28, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At one point, officials estimated there were 20 million nutria in Louisiana, but the current population may be half of that. The creatures have popped up elsewhere in the country but nowhere else on this scale. One natural population control is the alligator, which is happy to include nutria in its diet but is dormant four months a year.

State officials began the new nutria-control program, which got underway this year, as a response to the damage to what they conservatively estimate is 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands. Forty percent of the nation's coastal wetlands lie within Louisiana, where 80% of the total national wetland loss occurs.

If the population is not controlled, tens of thousands of acres of wetlands are in serious jeopardy, Kinler said.

And not just along the coast. Like everyone else in Louisiana, nutria eventually gravitated to New Orleans to eat. No one in the cities much cared about the furry fiend when it was devouring far-flung swamps, but when it began to scuttle along drainage canals in New Orleans and urban Jefferson Parish, residents shrieked.

A More Traditional Response to Rodents

Sheriff Harry Lee decided to rid Jefferson Parish of the "swamp rats" by utilizing another Louisiana custom: hunting. Every Wednesday night the sheriff sends out teams of sharpshooters who drive trucks onto the levees and pick off the nutria as they stare, blinking, into spotlights trained on them.

Watching little Spud scamper around his office at the Nature Center, Mayre shakes his head at the mention of the nutria hunt. These are animals who are known to practically pry open the doors of cage-traps to get to a wilted lettuce leaf.

They are not intelligent, he concedes, but they endure.

"Nutria are very good at being nutria," Mayre said.

Officials would like nutria to join blackened redfish and alligator meat as part of Louisiana's must-have cuisine. They are spending $2 million to develop a market for a meat that has been tested as highly lean, low in cholesterol and rich in protein.

The key to the program is to add incentive for nutria to be harvested. The state will essentially subsidize the hunting and processing of nutria meat. There is currently only one licensed nutria processor in the state, Tommy Stoddard of Hackberry. He says the animal is difficult to dress and takes a trained person five minutes to clean. He has processed about 5,000 pounds of nutria meat this year.

State officials are offering $1 a hide to trappers so that they will hunt nutria for their fur, which used to support a solid market.

Tourists Go for the 'Louisiana Experience'

Before there is a steady supply of meat, there must be a demand. That's where chef Philippe Parola comes in. Parola is the director of the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Jackson and the man chiefly responsible for developing enticing nutria recipes.

At his restaurant he offers nutria fettuccine, marinated nutria salad, nutria a l'orange, culotte de nutria a la moutarde and, for the health conscious, heart-healthy Crock-Pot nutria. Parola was dispatched to Japan in March to test the waters for the product.

"Look, I am French; I know about eating odd things," Parola said. "I would like to meet the chef who first went outside, picked up a snail, cooked it, put it on a table in front of someone and said, 'This is snail. Eat it.' "

Enola Prudhomme, owner and chef at Prudhomme's Cajun Cafe and the sister of the fabled Paul Prudhomme, has developed her own recipes. "It's difficult to get, but I can sell it when I do have it. Mostly it's the tourists who want it; they also want the alligator. It's the 'Louisiana experience,' I guess."

The chefs report that when they can lure anyone to try nutria, they like it. The tender meat tastes like rabbit, it is said. But it's getting anyone to take the first bite that's difficult.

"Here's the deal," Thomas said. "The problem here is that we see them dead and puffed up on the side of the road all the time. It's a road-kill issue."

It's also a rat issue. Because nutria are so well known in Louisiana, people are familiar with what they look like. Naturalists may say they are closely related to the guinea pig, but to the untrained eye, a nutria looks like a well-fed rat.

"We know, we know," Kinler said. "That's why we have high hopes for the foreign market. People will never see the nutria, just the processed meat."

For Art Cormier, nutria is just another of nature's bountiful appetizers. Cormier brought 100 servings of his nutria tamales to the Nature Center's Nutria Fest in March.

"Didn't bring home no leftovers," he said with pride.

Cormier, who lives in Bridge City outside of New Orleans, has eaten nutria since 1950, along with squirrel, alligator, venison, raccoon and much else that travels on wing and hoof. It's all protein to Art.

"I call it a rat hang-up," Cormier explained. "This ain't a rat. It's very good meat. With all the people in the world who are starving, how can we turn our backs on all this low-fat food just because we don't like its tail or its teeth? Don't make sense to me."

That's the spirit that state officials are looking for. They dream of a time in the not-so-distant future when, all over the world, it will be common to hear: "Nutria. Very good. How about a nice chardonnay to go with it?"

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