The High & the Low

God, Gators, and Gumbo

Getting to the slippery truths about Louisiana’s favorite reptile

Illustration: Michael Witte

In February, just before the start of Lent, Jim Piculas, a tour guide at the Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery in Covington, Louisiana, posted a letter on his employer’s Facebook page from the Most Reverend Gregory M. Aymond, archbishop of New Orleans. Piculas had written Aymond to ask if the Church might classify alligator as a fish, thereby making it okay to eat on the Fridays leading up to Easter. The archbishop wrote back that alligator is indeed “considered in the fish family,” and when the response went viral, he took to the local airwaves to confirm his position, which, he added, had been backed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Piculas did not post his own letter, but judging from Aymond’s reply, it was fulsome in its praise of the gator. “I agree with you,” Aymond wrote. “God has created a magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana and it is considered seafood.” The letter was signed “Sincerely in Christ”—who, it should be noted, did not feed the five thousand with loaves and gators. But I digress.

I am a Presbyterian and a fairly lenient Lenten observer, which means that this year I didn’t get around to giving up anything at all, though in terms of Fridays and food I wouldn’t have had to suffer much. In addition to okaying gator meat, the bishops agree
that the Friday rule does not “technically” forbid “meat juices and liquid foods made from meat…meat gravies or sauces, as well as other seasonings or condiments made from animal fat.” By that measure it’s okay to use beef or chicken stock in your seafood gumbo—or indeed alligator stew—and the Bloody Mary at New Orleans’ Cochon, which is enriched with pork stock, would also be perfectly acceptable.

Now, some people might say that these are the kinds of loopholes and elastic definitions that have landed the Church in a spot of trouble of late, but given my own shaky status, I will skip over all that and point out that elastic definitions are sort of a Louisiana thing in general and not limited to the Church, as evidenced by the fact that the state was the last to outlaw cockfighting, in 2008. For decades, the New Orleans newspaper, animal rights activists, and various other folks who held the welfare of the chicken close to their hearts had lobbied hard for a ban. They came close to victory at one point in the 1980s when a cruelty-to-animals law was discovered on the books, but then the state attorney general wrote an opinion saying that chickens were not in fact animals, they were “fowl,” and the legislature passed another law to that effect, which meant that the noble cocks could keep on fighting for another two decades.

When they were legal, I attended more than one standing-room-only cockfight, so I was aware of their popularity. But apparently I missed the fact that the appetite for gator in Louisiana is so insatiable that to give it up on one day of the week during a season that lasts little more than a month would be a terrible hardship. At Insta-Gator, where you can also arrange a child’s birthday party or purchase “quality alligator products” in the gift shop, the girl on the phone told me they sell “thousands upon thousands” of pounds of gator meat each year. The tail meat sells for a beefy ten dollars per pound, a price driven up by the enormous popularity of the reality show Swamp People, as well as an aggressive campaign by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, which wholeheartedly agrees with Aymond that gator is within their purview and is positively breathless in its description of the meat’s “thrilling” versatility and various other qualities that “make any meal more memorable.”

In New Orleans, memorable gator meals can be had at Jacques-Imo’s, which has long served an alligator cheesecake, the Parkway Bakery & Tavern, which sells an alligator sausage po’boy, and at Cochon, where it comes fried, accompanied by a chile aioli so good it would enhance (or mask) pretty much anything. Co-owner Donald Link says the main reason he and chef Stephen Stryjewski offer gator on the menu is that they feel an obligation to buy the meat from farmers who are really raising the gators for the far more profitable hide. When I ask Link if he actually likes gator, he says the same thing people invariably say about rattlesnake and all the other disgusting things that I honestly do not believe that the Lord meant us to eat on Fridays or any other day: “It tastes like chicken.”

Which leads me back to Aymond’s letter and the all-important duck test. You know the one: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…then it probably is a duck. It seems to me that a corollary to that test is that if something tastes like chicken, it might ought to be considered meat, or at least something firmly not “in the fish family.” You could also make the same case based on the fact that gators do not just taste like chicken, they consume
it. There is, for example, the memorable scene in Live and Let Die in which the gators’ appetite for Roger Moore is whetted by an appetizer of raw poultry parts. Just recently, I met a delightful Brit named Peter Pleydell-Bouverie, who had, in his youth, spent a summer at a ranch outside of Houston, where one of the chief forms of entertainment was feeding fried chicken by the bucketful to an alligator on the premises named Gladys. Despite having landed in a slew of clichés on his maiden trip, he still loves the South and visits often, though he does not eat alligator.

Who can blame him, since gators also have been known to eat deer, panther, black bear, the occasional human, and one another? Under duress they are not above going after an inanimate object, such as the trolling motor of my friend Howard Brent’s boat, which was bitten off by a gator during a hunt at Howard’s farm, Panther Tract, last fall. Panther Tract is located on a gorgeous stretch of swampy wilderness in Yazoo County, Mississippi, not far from where the state’s rec-ord gator, which weighed in at 697.5 pounds, was killed a week or so prior to Howard’s hunt. Due to the ample amount of water on his property, Howard is granted five permits a season by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, which means he can kill ten gators, an already daunting process the department does not make
 any simpler.

After spotting a gator’s eyes in the water, you use a rod and reel to land a grappling hook in his hide, and then you get close enough to immobilize him (sort of) with a snare, a device Howard describes as a noose on a pole akin to what old-fashioned dogcatchers used. The aim, since alligators possess between seventy-four and eighty teeth, is to “try and get that noose tightened up around his mouth, so he won’t bite”—the one that attacked the motor was caught by the tail. Only after the gator has been snared is the hunter allowed to take his weapon out of its case, and even then, it’s not much of one. “You can’t use a rifle or a pistol,” says Howard, just a shotgun loaded with bird shot. Further, according to the instructions on the department’s website, the hunter must “keep gentle pressure” on the restraining line to keep the gator’s head and neck above the surface of the water before placing the shotgun a maximum of six to eight inches from him, aiming for the center of the neck.

Needless to say, it’s a process a whole lot easier said than done, especially after a few hours on the water in the pitch black dark during which time I would bet some alcohol is consumed. “You got to find that little old soft spot behind his head, and it’s only about the size of a fifty-cent piece,” Howard says. “And then he’s moving around the whole time.” An average hunt will last from about six in the evening until two or three in the morning, after which the skinning begins and then everyone sits down to a big breakfast. Howard loves the sport of it, but he says they’ll eat the meat too, usually fried in an egg batter, but first, he cautions, “you got to hammer the hell out of it to tenderize it.” I imagine so. “And what does it taste like?” Oh, you know, he answers back, “Sort of like chicken.”