AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
For Catholics, the selection of a new pope has made March a month of celebration, but it's also a time of sacrifice. It is Lent. And in Louisiana, some businesses have something to celebrate, a little free marketing thanks to the Catholic hierarchy, as Tina Antolini reports.
TINA ANTOLINI, BYLINE: This whole story starts with a letter, written three years ago by a guy named Jim Piculas. He was trying to settle a debate among his friends. Is it OK to eat alligator during Lent?
JIM PICULAS: Most of my friends here in Louisiana are Catholic and they were saying, no, that it was not and some were saying, yes, that it was. And I was like, let me take this to the archbishop and he's going to set the record straight.
ANTOLINI: For the uninitiated, Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Seafood, however, is allowed. And Piculas wanted to know if gator qualified. He's not just casually interested, though.
PICULAS: Now, people, we have about 2,000 alligators here at the ranch.
ANTOLINI: He's an alligator wrangler at Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery in Covington, Louisiana. He leads daily tours and shows folks the chirping babies.
PICULAS: Do you have a question, my brother? What is that?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It's a good thing you trained these alligators. Otherwise, we'd all be like Thanksgiving to them.
ANTOLINI: Piculas is an extreme alligator enthusiast, spouting facts about their dental prowess and giving the babies nicknames like Lady Gaga. And his letter must have been pretty zealous because not long after he wrote it...
PICULAS: From the Archdiocese, Dear Jim, that's me.
ANTOLINI: Piculas got a response.
PICULAS: Yes, the alligator is considered in the fish family and I agree with you, God has created a magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana and it is considered seafood. Wishing you God's blessing, I am sincerely in Christ, Most Reverend Gregory M. Aymond, Archbishop of New Orleans.
ANTOLINI: Now, ever since Aymond wrote that letter in 2010, it's been on the wall in the gift shop at Insta-Gator Ranch. This year, Piculas posted it on Facebook. It went from being shared hundreds of times to making the news. Articles on eating gator for Lent popped up everywhere, from CatholicFoodie.com to the Catholic News Agency.
But has all of this meant New Orleanians are switching to gator on Fridays? Jay Nix would be in a position to know.
JAY NIX: Alligator is such a natural for New Orleans. Alligator gumbo, jambalaya, I mean, it's a wonder that alligator isn't our mascot, you know.
ANTOLINI: Nix owns Parkway Bakery, which serves a mean alligator sausage po-boy sandwich. He says in a culturally Catholic city like New Orleans, where even the nonreligious eat fish on Lenten Fridays, he gets slammed with seafood orders. And a bump in gator might balance things out.
NIX: Well, you would think that it would take some pressure off of our shrimp sales, because we could go through three, 400 pounds of shrimp a day. And so when Lent comes, it sort of gives us a little bit of the jitters.
ANTOLINI: Some extra gator marketing this Lenten season has been a welcome thing at Parkway and other restaurants in the city that serve it, from fried alligator at Cochon to the alligator cheesecake at Jacques-Imo's. But with all the gator fever, Archbishop Aymond has a reminder. Speaking recently on member station WWNO, he says, Lent is about deprivation, remember?
ARCHBISHOP GREGORY M. AYMOND: Abstinence and fasting is supposed to be a sacrifice.
ANTOLINI: But Aymond himself was born in New Orleans. And in a city this rich in seafood...
AYMOND: Quite frankly, and I can say this because I'm from New Orleans, having to fulfill this law or this guideline of abstinence of meat on Friday is no sacrifice whatsoever. That's the reality of it.
ANTOLINI: In New Orleans, it might take going vegetarian for Catholics to really feel deprived. For NPR News, I'm Tina Antolini.
CORNISH: If you'd like to find a good recipe for alligator, head to our website. You can hear James Beard award-winning chef Stephen Stryjewski from New Orleans describe how he cooks fried alligator with chili garlic aioli. That's at NPR.org.