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Night of the Iguana Tamale

For those who suddenly find themselves with huge, ugly creatures they no longer want but can’t find a place for, I have a solution: Eat them.

The big, ugly creature to which I refer is not your husband but an iguana, a lizard which, I am led to believe, is currently out of favor in L.A. and therefore discardable.

At one time it seems just about everyone wanted one of the little dears, but because, like baby grizzlies, they grow into large, disagreeable things, their presence in the average household is no longer desired.

And perhaps even more important, they are out of style, a condition that is simply not acceptable in a city where style is more important than breakfast.

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Unfortunately, you can’t throw an unwanted iguana into a box in the attic or take it down to Goodwill, which severely limits one’s options. Similarly, zoos don’t want the nasty little lizards and neither do those agencies dedicated to caring for God’s more cuddly castoffs.

So what’s a person to do with an animal nobody wants? Might I suggest braising them?

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This is not a new idea. Many Latin Americans eat iguanas with relish (well, actually, salsa) and you can bet if there were a surplus of cows roaming through the city we’d know what to do with them here in Hamburger Heaven.

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Our aversion to eating iguanas is based not so much on their nutritional value as on their appearance. However, if you stop to think about it, a pig isn’t exactly a portrait of beauty and we have no trouble with pork chops.

I think the secret here is preparing iguana in such an appealing manner that it will become irresistible to those who consider themselves gourmets. In a sense, bringing it back into style but in a, well, different form.

People who live in the Valley, of course, would remain content with a pizza and meatloaf diet, but the trendier set on the Westside would no doubt elevate iguana onto a plane rivaling ris de veau. That’s calf brains.

How to prepare iguana? I asked that of Barbara Fairchild, executive editor of Bon Appetit magazine, America’s bible of food. She replied that while everything tastes like chicken, she wasn’t about to eat a lizard and suggested that I talk to some of the top chefs in town. Done.

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One of them was Dean Max, the young genius at Brentwood’s Woodside restaurant who came up with the idea of braised iguana. While more accustomed to preparing mussels in a lemon grass broth, Max figures he’d cook iguana the way he’d cook rabbit. It would involve garlic, spices, ancho chiles, white wine and some other things. “Some other things” isn’t what he said but I’m running out of room.

Simmer for eight minutes, dress it up with goat cheese and polenta and voila! Iguana d’Max.

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John Rivera Sedlar, chef, author and lecturer, found a book on pre-Hispanic foods in Mexico that acknowledged the iguana as good eats as far back as the 16th century.

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In 1565, a priest, Bernardino de Sahagun, described the iguana as “horrid looking, resembling a dragon, with scales on its body,” but then added, “It is harmless and good to eat, best prepared in stews or tamales.”

Sedlar knows more about tamales than you know about your children and, in fact, has written a best-selling cookbook called simply, you guessed it, “Tamales.” Trust me when I tell you this man is king of the tamales.

While he has never cooked an iguana, he is known for, among other things, stewed snake and assumes that an iguana would be prepared in a similar fashion. He would stew it in a compote and serve it over a tamale.

“There have been ant tamales and frog tamales,” he says, “so why not an iguana tamale?” Why not indeed?

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While iguanas prepared in any form are probably not for everyone, I’m sure that, like bull testicles and fried ostrich, there’s a place for them. It is my understanding, in fact, that a zoologist operating in Costa Rica who calls herself Mama Iguana has plans to publish a cookbook of iguana recipes.

I suspect that iguana will eventually become a new in-food in the world of haute cuisine, after which will follow a direct appeal to those who ingest what is known in Beverly Hills as Valley Food. McGuana Burgers comin’ your way under the Golden Arches. Watch for them.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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