Alligator—both wild and farmed—is an intrinsic part of the culture and economy in this part of Southeast Texas, which is known as the Golden Triangle and includes the cities of Beaumont, Orange, and Port Arthur.
Hearn’s family has lived in Beaumont for generations. She began hunting when she was 9—primarily feral hogs, deer, and birds—and much of her childhood was spent in the kitchen, where her extended family prepared elaborate feasts.
“Sustainability and conservation were instilled in me when I was very young,” Hearn says. “It was important to my dad that we have reverence for the life that was being taken and for the environment. To me, being involved in every aspect of hunting, including processing, cooking, and utilizing as much of the animal as I can, is a form of respect. I enjoy hunting, but I also enjoy eating.”
Shortly after graduating from Lamar University in 2020, Hearn launched Game Girl Gourmet, which offers her services as a private chef and cooking instructor with an emphasis on wild game.
On this spring day, Hearn is preparing dinner for her friends Jeremie and Kim Estillette, who have provided fresh alligator tail meat. Jeremie is a state-certified nuisance alligator hunter and owner of Whatever It Takes Gator Rescue in Vidor. As a contractor for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, he catches and relocates alligators that have ventured into territory heavily populated by humans, like swimming pools, retention ponds, and campgrounds.
The Golden Triangle is prime habitat for the American alligator, which is native to eastern parts of Texas and other Southern states. Once on the brink of extinction, the protected species has been able to thrive again in Texas thanks to conservation initiatives, including two highly regulated hunting seasons.
While Jeremie enjoys seasonal hunting to control the population, he dreads having to put down the fewer than 1% of nuisance alligators that can’t, for logistical or behavioral reasons, be released back into the wild or placed in a sanctuary. “My job is about not killing alligators,” he says. “But when I have no other option, there’s not much that goes to waste, and it’s enough to keep my family and friends fed.”
Thus, the dinner party at Hearn’s. The tikka masala is what she calls a “tastes like chicken” recipe. “It’s what everyone says about alligator, so I applied that to recipes that call for chicken.”
In February, Wullenwaber; his wife, Misti Wullenwaber; and their four business partners purchased the restaurant formerly known as Rodair Roadhouse. The group decided to keep the original menu, which is famous for its Cajun classics, including alligator étoufée and gator fried with cornmeal crust. While Wullenwaber acknowledges the meat is a novelty for tourists, he thinks locals of a certain age see it differently.
“I think of alligator as a delicacy because when I was a kid, we didn’t go to a restaurant to eat it—you went out and caught them yourself,” he says.
There’s a certain joy in procuring your own food, as Hearn and Jeremie know. After dinner, the two compare alligator cooking techniques and discuss their love of hunting and conservation. “It’s the honorable way to do things,” Hearn says. “If more people had conversations about how hunting protects wildlife and the environment, there would be a lot less opposition to it.”
Back From the Brink
The worldwide demand for luxury animal-skin goods that began in the late 19th century led to the near extinction of the American alligator. In 1973, the species was officially protected by the Texas Endangered Species Act. Federal and state initiatives have enabled a successful comeback of the wild population in the U.S., and hunting was again legalized in Texas in the late 1980s. “Alligator farms are a critical part of the sustainable-use model that keeps the native population in place,” says Jonathan Warner, TPWD’s Alligator Program Leader. “Almost all farms get their eggs from the wild. They’re harvested by commercial collectors who pay landowners for access. Like hunting, which must be done by permit on private land, it’s an economic incentive that motivates owners to manage and protect alligator habitat.”