People who take pride in their alligator dishes sometimes need to be as thick-skinned as the toothy reptiles they prepare. Take Mike "Fireman Mike" Gowland, a captain in the New Orleans Fire Department who learned to cook alligator sauce piquant at his old firehouse some years back and has served it as a food vendor at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival off and on since 2002.
"It seems like people will try anything and like to experiment with food now, but for some reason people are still so squeamish about alligator," Gowland says. "They hear there's alligator in something and they recoil like you said something bad. I even cooked my sauce piquant side by side with a nutria dish one year at another event, and I couldn't believe it but more people were willing to try nutria over alligator. I mean, really, nutria?"
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 present a rare exhibition of the reptile's culinary potential. In addition to Gowland'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. Curiosity led me to each of their booths for the first time, but it was the robust and unique flavors of their dishes that put them on my personal must-have list for Jazz Fest food each year.
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, 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. Gowland 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.