I attended my first crawfish boil one March about five years ago. I was staying with friends at a small hotel that was an old shotgun style house that was said to be inhabited by Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. The owners of this establishment welcomed my friends with open arms and made sure we were well kept during our brief trip to the city. On our last day of the trip, the host asked us, “y’all comin’ to the boil?” We looked at each other with bewildered reactions and inquired further. We were told to come back in a few hours and all would be told.
Almost a sister city of Baltimore, New Orleans is steeped in crustacean food delicacies that locals and travelers alike enjoy. Both cities enjoy their crabs (we steam our crabs while they boil theirs with flavor) and snowballs in the warmer months. Much akin to the Maryland tradition of picking crabs with friends and family, New Orleans has their version with crawfish boils.
Between the months of February and June, NOLA residents are known for throwing parties that feature these tiny crustaceans. When in the Big Easy, you find an excuse to throw a party. Crawfish are freshwater shellfish that can be found all over the bayous of Louisiana. It’s a rich tradition of the Cajun people to go out as a family on the waters in search for these plentiful delicacies in the waters. But even before the Cajuns, local Indian tribes would also consume these miniature lobsters with their peers. The time honored tradition is passed through generations in Louisiana and is part of the rich history of the food enriched destination. Going out and motoring your way through the murky and alligator infested waters added the journey from mud to table.
You might be wondering how these tiny little creatures would be enough to last a full group of people all day. There is more than just crawfish in a boil. The first step after adding a ton of water to a pot is to include the seasonings. You can find bags of seasoning at every grocery store, convenience store, and souvenir shops around the city. The taste is similar to Maryland’s Old Bay, but spicier. When the pot is boiling, the mix is added along with small red potatoes and pieces of corn on the cob. This is the traditional preparation, but many locals also throw in onions, mushroom, and even andouille sausage, which is a staple of other dishes like jambalaya. You can even see literal sweat being added the boil as the preparer sweats into the pot as they stir vigorously.
Once the contents of the pot are boiled properly, the contents are drained and dumped on a classic picnic table. The table usually has that classic red and white striped pattern we all recognize from summer cookouts in America. The crawfish and other contents sit delectably on the table with no hesitation with the guests to come and enjoy the fruits of their labor. The boil is all about the gathering of friends and family to share in this meal after the short winter months in the South.
Most Marylanders will know that the actual process of eating a crab is a ritual in itself. The proper way to get the “meat” is a passed down tradition that starts at an early age. Much is the same with crawfish, but the logistics are much easier to work around. There is the vulgar sounding proclamation of “suckin’ da head out” that is exclaimed in a jovial manner. One twists the small body of the crawfish to suck out the juices left from the boiling method of cooking. The meat is exposed after picking apart the shell to expose the innards of the crawfish. Here is a quick visual guide on how to properly take apart a crawfish:
One of the best parts of attending the boil is the music and overall happy nature of the event. One of my favorite parts about New Orleans is the constant need to celebrate life with food and music. These are the simple things that give people a chance to get together and take time and relax. NOLA is known for its laid back attitude and these gatherings are no exception to the rule. The full day of cooking and enjoy the spoils of your labor goes on well into the night as the humid Louisiana sun sets for a more relaxing evening.
So we return back to the beginning of the story in which I first learned about a boil. We came back to the hotel as instructed and were immediately greeted with the savory smells of crawfish cooking in the back. We entered the quaint courtyard area and saw the feast that awaited us. The crawfish were spread out (along with the potatoes and corn) on that classic red and white patterned blanket. We were taken in as if we were family and treated like royalty to boot. These kind hotel owners treated us to a piece of normal New Orleans life in the Spring and I’ll never forget the warmth I felt in my belly and in my soul.