Sadly, the party's over—Mardi Gras, that is. Folks of the Catholic persuasion donned their ashes yesterday and are settling into 40 days of Lent (February 22 to April 6), where the faithful may or may not give up some kind of vice and/or incorporate a new spiritual, mindful, or healthy practice into their lives. For many Catholics Lent also includes abstaining from meat on Fridays, and for most, that means eschewing meat for fish. But what, exactly, counts as "fish" or "non-meat" is an ongoing discussion.
One curious resident of Louisiana wondered if alligators—which are plentiful in the Bayou State—would be considered "fish" for Lenten purposes. Turns out, the answer is yes. The Facebook page "NOLA A. F." recently posted a photo of a now-famous letter from 2010, from Reverend Gregory M. Aymond, Archbishop of New Orleans, to Mr. Jim Piculas of the Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery in Covington, Louisiana. In the letter Archbishop Aymond answers a question Mr. Piculas had asked in a previous letter: Are alligators acceptable to eat during the Lenten Season? Archbishop Aymond responds: "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."
In 2013, Catholic News Agency reiterated the Church's official position:
Alligator is permissible to eat on Fridays of Lent, the archbishop of New Orleans assured a conscientious parishioner, and his approval has been backed by the national bishops' conference.
The Code of Canon Law says, "Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday."
"The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year," canon law continues. This rule of abstinence from meat raises questions of what precisely constitutes meat, which explains Archbishop Aymond's answer about alligators.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website on "Lent and Lenten Practices" shows the rationale behind Archbishop Aymond's declaration.
"Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs – all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat…Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted."
Since alligators are reptiles and therefore cold-blooded, their flesh does not count as "meat" from which U.S. Catholics must abstain on Fridays in Lent.
Other reptiles that could presumably be consumed on Lenten Fridays include turtles, snakes, and tortoises. The bishops indicate that foods such as chicken broth, meat gravies or sauces, "as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden."
If you're wondering what other animals "count" as "not meat" and thus are acceptable to eat on Fridays during Lent, here's another list, compiled by BR Proud. In addition to alligator, it includes turtle, snake, capybara, beaver, muskrat, and puffin. All I have to say is: keep your grubby paws off of my beloved capybara! And, of course, you could just go vegetarian on Fridays… just sayin'.