Taking a Bite of Gator

New Orleans, LA –
People who take pride in their alligator dishes sometimes need to be as thick-skinned as the toothy reptiles they prepare. Take Mike Gowland, better known as Fireman Mike. He's a captain in the New Orleans Fire Department and he learned to cook alligator sauce piquant at his old firehouse some years back. He's served the dish as a food vendor at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival off and on since 2002, and once again this year he'll prepare batches for each day of the 2010 fest, which begins on April 23.

If past years are any indication, however, he knows he'll have to do some convincing to get people to try it. Once some people hear there's alligator in the aromatic, attractive red stew, he says they often recoil and beg off.

Blame this state of affairs on general unfamiliarity with the meat, and with sometimes unfortunate results when alligator does make it to the plate. Alligator dishes remain scarce on local menus, and the meat is even harder to find in the market. When most people see it at all, it's usually a novelty item, like fried alligator bits that typically come out as tasty as batter-fried rubber bands with a side of remoulade.

But at Jazz Fest, three vendors serve quite different alligator dishes, and together they present a rare exhibition of the reptile's culinary potential. In addition to Fireman Mike's alligator sauce piquant, there's alligator pie from Betty Douglass of Cajun Nights Catering and fried gator from Sharon and Guil Wegner, who do the dish far more justice than the common fried specimen.

All three vendors use tail meat from Louisiana farm-raised gators, a step that makes the famously tough flesh as tender as it will ever get on its own. The keys to their finished products, though, are marathon marinade sessions. The Wegners soak their alligator chunks in a seasoning blend for a full month before frying them at the festival grounds, where they add the masterstroke of ribbon-thin fried onion and jalapeno rings. They serve them stuffed into a po-boy, or as a plate without he bread, which I prefer since it lets the springy texture and slightly sour taste of the gator stand more on its own. Alligator meat is typically compared to chicken, but it tastes much more like frog legs when prepared this way.

For the curious but yet-to-be-convinced, Betty Douglass simply describes her alligator pie as a riff on traditional crawfish pie, substituting reptile for crustacean. The concept and taste is quite familiar, with puff pastry encasing a smooth, thick, buttery, peppery sauce with soft chunks of the pale white meat. It's like a spicy hand-held etouffee.

Over at Fireman Mike's food booth, the alligator sauce piquant also shares a good deal of traditional Louisiana technique. Mike blackens the meat far in advance, then packs it in olive oil and seasoning until Jazz Fest time, when he finishes the dish on the spot. The result is a dark, rusty-red stew that hits the palate with the ripe sweetness of tomato and the tang of alligator and then settles into the distinctive mellow burn that gives sauce piquant its name.

Each of these vendors sells other seafood dishes at Jazz Fest, all of which are worth a try. But for a truly memorable festival food experience, take a bite of alligator.