Dale Carnegie, America’s first self-help guru and author of “How To Win Friends & Influence People,” famously coined the phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” as a practical aphorism for dealing with adversity.
But this week, the people of Florida have an unusual rejoinder. Lemons they know how to deal with – the state is the nation’s leading producer of citrus fruits and its third-leading producer of lemons (following California and Texas). It is also the nation’s main producer of fruits for juicing, so Floridians are literally the leading experts in making lemonade out of lemons.
But what to do with frozen iguanas raining down from above? There’s no easy and obvious aphorism for that one.
Yet that was the situation on the ground this week in Florida, where an unexpected cold snap caused a truly unusual natural phenomenon – and a very unexpected commerce opportunity.
Dubbed the Sunshine State, Florida is home to iguanas and citrus trees for the same reason: It’s warm year-round, and both the animals and the fruits are highly sensitive to cold. Hence, a sudden temperature dip in Miami on Wednesday morning sent the temperature crashing to the 40s – a reading our northern readers will likely scoff at, but a frigid result for Miami, where it hasn’t been that cold in nine years. According to the National Weather Service, the wind chill brought the perceived air temperature down to the mid-30s.
“After a frigid start to their Wednesday morning in Florida, where freeze warnings and wind chill advisories are in effect across all of the Sunshine State, a return to more typical weather is expected,” the weather service said via a tweet.
That may have been one of the NWS’ most informative tweets, but it was not the best one they sent out. No, the best tweet was about the weird reality that emerged on Tuesday afternoon as temperatures started to fall – taking the iguanas down with it.
“This isn’t something we usually forecast, but don’t be surprised if you see iguanas falling from the trees tonight as lows drop into the 30s and 40s,” the weather service tweeted. “Brrr!”
The tweet followed up with advice that people leave the iguanas alone, because more likely than not they were stunned and simply lost their grip on the tree branch. Once they warm back up, adult iguanas will generally reanimate. Younger, smaller iguanas often will not make it.
“Iguanas are cold-blooded. They slow down or become immobile when temps drop into the 40s. They may fall from trees, but they are not dead,” the weather service said.
We’d like to report that people mostly stayed away from the iguanas as they rained from the skies. But we can’t. We can report, however, that the good people of Florida are extremely inventive. As it turns out, when life hands them iguanas – frozen and stunned, or possibly dead – they make skewers.
As it turns out, iguanas are considered an invasive species in Florida – pets brought in by consumers that escaped into the wild and began plowing through local plant life and digging structure-damaging burrows. Since it is legal to kill them as long as it done humanely, they’ve actually become a popular food truck staple in Florida in the last few years, as they can be eaten fried, skewered, roasted or batter-dipped and deep-fried.
And yes, they do taste like chicken, according to local reports.
The taste so much like chicken, in fact, that when the bumper crop of iguana meat showed up on Florida sidewalks earlier this week, a host of advertisements went up on the Facebook marketplace advertising “chicken of the trees” – which, yes, is what they call iguana meat in Florida. They are also referred to as “garrabos,” which is the Spanish word for “iguana.”
Iguanas are commonly eaten in some South and Central American countries and are considered a delicacy in Mexico. Here in the U.S., in the wake of the rare Florida frost, iguanas are going for the bargain price of $1 apiece, already cleaned and gutted.
“People have been eating iguanas since at least 10,000 years ago, when humans reached the New World tropics. It was a readily available, not-too-dangerous food source. It’s always been part of the diet,” William Kern, a professor at the University of Florida, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Nationwide, iguana is becoming a trendy meat product. Several markets in Washington, D.C. have it shipped straight from El Salvador, while California-based Exotic Meat Markets imports iguana from Puerto Rico and distributes the meat skin-on, skinless and boneless.
One can also be served iguana tableside, according to the Tribune’s reporting. In Los Angeles, the restaurant Sabores Oaxaqueños serves iguana as a tamale. In Coral Gables, Florida, Mexican restaurant Talavera Cocina Mexicana offers “chicken of the trees” in a traditional soup called a pozole.
But whether one buys it tableside or in a market, iguana is generally a costly food source.
Iguana sausage will cost you $14.99 a pound at the Exotic Meat Market. A “jumbo” iguana, on the other hand, costs $259.99.
Or you could save roughly $259 and buy a Miami flash-frozen iguana, though the experts strongly recommend against it.
“You have to really harvest it in the proper way and slaughter it properly, because normally it would have salmonella,” said Amy Simonne, a food safety specialist at the University of Florida. “In terms of cooking and preparing, it’s just like when you prepare chicken and beef products. You have to keep the product from cross-contamination and cook it properly to the right temperature.”
So even if it’s raining iguanas, perhaps steer clear of harvesting one in the wild and turning it into a skewer dish. Maybe just let it be and hope it wakes up and runs away when the sun comes out. And if you can’t afford the $260 to buy your own certified jumbo iguana for this weekend’s BBQ?
Well, they do say it tastes like chicken, so…
Maybe stick with the chicken.