As the temperature rises in New Orleans the seasons shift and locals are signaled of impending spring. Warm breezes tickle the sweaty lower backs of women bending over coolers to pick through cans of PBR and Heineken. Young, uniformed kids race to the bus stop after school to crowd buses headed toward their favorite sno ball shack that’s finally opened for the season. And the thick, humid air that hangs over our heads is saturated with the scent of Zatarain’s Crab Boil.
Balmy evenings welcome entire neighborhoods onto the streets to chug malt liquor from sweating 40 bottles, lounge lazily on porches of their neighbor’s shotguns and trade work clothes for unbuttoned booty shorts and stained tank tops. People move through the city in packs sharing sweat soaked handkerchiefs, scratching each others bug bites that are out of reach and recognizing Lent on “meat-free” Friday nights crowded around folding tables covered in empty crawfish shells.
Maybe it’s the fact that one day a week their arteries are given a break from fried chicken for breakfast – smothered chops for lunch – BBQ ribs for dinner; but on Friday nights people are lighter on their feet. The promise of late night conversations with friends and sweet tail meat evoke smiles at strangers on the streetcar after 6:00 p.m. Come spring, boils dominate Friday night plans and draw people off their couches, out from under their ceiling fans and onto back decks full of people and pots exploding with plumes of white steam. Boils are hosted from “afternoon – till” leaving room for everyone to be satisfied- those who are in search of an early afternoon snack as well as those who can’t make it until the third batch is rolling at your friend’s place around 9:00 p.m.
When the crawfish are “running” it’s hard to miss packed dive bars selling them for $4.99/lb, or the tubs in front of a grocery store that stocks them boiled-for-sale. Driving through the city you’re berated by sandwich boards announcing fresh boiled crawfish, stuffed artichokes, crabs for $3 a piece. The Channel is littered with Big Fisherman posters stapled to light posts announcing their fresh catch and a pop-up kitchens (pots, gas burners and coolers) are assembled in front of Igor’s on St. Charles, Lucy’s on Tchoup.
All day the smell of heated seasoning and seafood are impossible to ignore, irresistible. It’s hard to miss when you’re walking around town stepping over cracked heads and naked corn cobs. If it’s not being funneled through your living room window from your neighbors backyard it’s somewhere else close. People slip dollar bills into the streetcar machine with fingers that smell like a bait shop no matter how many times they’ve scrubbed them under a backyard hose. Twenty-something’s are found outside of Cajun’s on Broad and Toledano squatted on a curb picking through two pound plastic grocery bags and tossing empty shells under their car.
And it’s hard to miss when your neighbor’s children are battling with the live mini-lobsters that they pull from a cooler before they’re thrown into the pot to boil. The slow moving monsters are pulled from boxes of ice by the tiny hands of cousins, nieces and neighbor kids and made to snap claws at each other. The water heats and until it’s fully rolling the small grey animals crawl and creep across each other, unaware of their fate.
Whether it’s crawfish, crab or shrimp, a boil has the significant power of collecting neighbors and family members to share in a communal meal once a week. They take place in spaces that are meant for sharing in community activities: dusty backyards, shaded medians that run through a busy Central City street, or bar porches lit with strings of blinking Christmas lights. As a boil approaches these spaces are converted to accommodate an influx of hungry locals as diverse as the mixture of vegetables and seafood in the boiling pot. Garlic and potatoes are dropped- as folding chairs, porch swings and hammocks strewn around host teachers, artists and bicycle repairmen. Artichokes and corn are dropped- when cooler lids and air conditioning units become seating for tiny children and muddy pets. Brussel sprouts and mushrooms are dropped- as tattered couches provide relief for tired asses of overworked teachers and porch steps fill with exhausted mothers.
Those welcomed into someone’s home show up toting cold beers and “party size” bags of Zapp’s Voodoo chips (cheap, sure, but the only contributions necessary if, more importantly, you’re willing to also contribute a few hours of rich conversation.) At bars people are found sharing picnic tables surrounded by paper towels saturated in spicy juices and bowls full of room temperature remoulade sauce for dipping potatoes and artichokes.
The host or hostess weaves through the crowd introducing friends to lovers, children to dogs and neighbors to best friends. Women have the baby of a friend straddled on their hip. With a beer in one hand and a roll of masking tape in the other they sway slowly back and forth watching their sister lay out sheets of newspaper. Old men talk to young women about ending and impending careers in the film business, or what New Orleans was like back in the day. And by the time the sun has set and the porch light clicks on strangers have found themselves lighting the cigarettes of new acquaintances.
People mill around any boil spot discussing work weeks, art projects, children, pets or last weeks boil. They let their guts fill with beer and hang over waistbands. Because by the time it’s Friday, your shoes are coming off and comfort is the key concern, second only to good conversation over warm glasses of liquor. The comfort of family and friends trumps any effort to be proper, sexy or put together- slippers are thrown on to scale the fence between your and your neighbor’s yards and sweatpants suffice while the cigarettes and joints being passed around a circle are ashed across your lap.
After an hour of timing when potatoes should be dropped, when seasoning should be added, and the time it takes for the mudbugs to cool enough to eat- people are hungry with tongues wetted by Abita and tepid soda. Belts are whipped from their loops and sleeves are rolled up clear to your armpits. Voices grow softer while the host or hostess slips on potholders to lift 20 pounds of fresh, warm seafood and vegetables from the pot. The red boil liquid sifts out of the colander and splashes onto the concrete around the pot.
The crawfish tumble out of the heavy stockpot and onto the table and the conversation fades as hands reach into the pile of steaming red insects. Those who have been peeling crawfish and shrimp their whole lives get through a pound before those who haven’t can even taste a single morsel, so help is offered almost immediately when you look like you’re having a hard time. When you’re trashing half-full tails or leaving heads un-sucked neighbors at the table offer advice and dissect the animals ten times slower than they normally would to assure that nothing’s going to waste.
Instructions are boiled down to: crack, twist, suck, peel, throw. Taking the head and tail in either hand crack the shell and twist the two halves of the crawfish apart. Then, depending on your preference, either discard the head into a pile of empty shells and corn cobs- or wrap your lips around the spiced, warm, open neck forcefully sucking as not to waste any flavor, juice or organs worth eating. The tail meat is retrieved by peeling the segments of the shell away one-by-one until the entire piece of white meat is exposed and ready to be consumed.
Mouths are too busy chewing and sucking boiled brains to continue conversation until people sporadically come up for air or need a minute to rest fingers and pick corn kernels out of their teeth. Then by the time everyone has gotten a few pounds in them conversations are started about the first time someone peeled crawfish for their child, their boyfriend, a newcomer. Mother’s peel tails for themselves discussing when their newborn will be able to peel their own. Nieces exclaim their extreme disgust at the thought of eating brains and intestines when an aunt hasn’t cleaned a piece well enough.
Batch after batch is boiled, dumped, consumed. People sit out number one to keep drinking but go hard on numbers two and three. Seats are filled and emptied. Conversation keeps as raucous laughter carries into the air aside clouds of steam and smoke. Bellies fill with food and conversations pick up but eating slows as diners begin searching for one last tiny mushroom at the bottom of the pile that might push them over the limit. They stop feeding themselves and help peel crawfish for a five year old hovering below the table with their mouth open, head thrown back like a baby bird begging for food. Eventually lazed eyes flutter and tired hands grip dog leashes, ready to return home.
Belches, sighs and tooth sucking are a common part of conversation, vocalized unabashedly throughout lines such as
“My favorite part—has got to be—the garlic.”
“I don’t know—the last time—I had crawfish this damn spicy but Jesus Christ—that was a meal.”
“Were you here last week because—that corn was to die.”
“This is what life should be—about. Eating crawfish, all day.”