Here's some advice on how to tackle your first-ever crawfish boil like a pro.
The crowd gathers around and grabs at the lifeless bodies littering the tabletop, tearing the creatures' heads—eyeballs staring blankly at their attackers—from their bodies. Entrails squirt out. Fingers are smeared with guts.
This isn't a scene pulled straight from a scary Steven King novel, but rather a regular ol' crawfish boil in the heart of Mobile, Ala. It's my first, and watching people take a head to their lips, then tip it back and suck in the shellfish's juices like a shot has me enthralled. I tiptoe into the event by picking up a potato. Soaked in spices that've cooked for hours, the heat brings tears to my eyes, but still, it's so flavorful, so good, I find myself reaching for another—and another, this time smashing a clove of soaked garlic on the hunk before taking a bite, as I watched my tableside neighbor do just moments ago. It's glorious. I nibble on an ear of corn. I've put it off long enough—now, only the crawfish, eyes and all, lay before me.
I beg a friend to peel one for me, and I study his technique closely. He hands me the meat—such a small prize for such a laborious extraction—and it's delicious. Tender, not at all chewy, with just the right amount of spice. I ask for another. He hands me a whole one, and tells me to peel it myself. With a deep breath, I went to town. Soon, I was covered in the same juices and entrails and all manner of sticky shellfish parts as my neighbors.
Crawfish boils are a time-honored tradition throughout the South. People come together several times during the season to boil pounds of the buggers and eat 'em alongside cooked potatoes, corn, garlic—and sometimes Andouille sausage or other vegetables. The spoils are dumped directly from the boiling pot onto long tables covered in plastic tablecloths and newspapers. Plates are not (or are rarely) used. Dozens of rolls of paper towels are placed around the table and serve as napkins. (They are all used.) People eat with their hands, not forks. And when the spoils are devoured, another pot is dumped, again and again and again.
Surviving a first crawfish boil can be scary—especially for Northerners whose experience with shellfish has been limited to crab or lobster served on plates, or shrimp shed of all its outer shells, save for maybe a tail.
If you're planning to attend a crawfish boil during the upcoming season—usually in April and May in the South—then I've prepared some tips to help you survive and even enjoy it.
1. Wear expandable pants. The average boil includes four to five pounds of crawfish per person. Of course, very little meat can be eaten from each mud bug. But between those tails and the potatoes and corn you'll devour, you'll be glad you left yourself some room to grow.
2. And wear dark clothing. It's a lesson my husband learned the hard way during his first boil. He'd unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a white undershirt, then tore open a crawfish. He was rewarded for his efforts with guts and juices splattered across that once-pristine shirt.
3. Don't bring a plastic bib. People don't do that at boils And you will be ostracized.
4. If you've got long hair, keep a ponytail holder handy. It's one thing to have your lips and face covered in crawfish juices, but it's quite another to have to wash it from your hair.
5. Remove your rings and watches before you dig in. If you're doing this whole crawfish boil thing right, your hands will be covered in guts and juices will be running down your arms. It's better to remove your finery now than clean it later.
6. Keep water handy. Southerners do not mess around with their spices. In any given boil, a cook has added pounds of Zatarain's boil mix—a potent blend of mustard seed, coriander seed, cayenne pepper, bay leaves, dill seed, and allspice—to their six-gallon boil pot. Water is not refreshed between boils, so every boil becomes even spicier. Your lips will burn. Your eyes will tear up. And you will be very glad you brought a gallon of water just for yourself.
7. Be prepared to hear Zydeco music. A blend of blues, jazz, and rhythm, Zydeco music is rarely heard outside of the South. (It originated in Louisiana.) It may sound like polka to the untrained ear, because it often features accordions. But it will surely get your toes tapping.
8. Choose your crawfish carefully. When you're comfortable enough to reach for your first crawfish, choose the largest one you can find—it will have more meat—with a curved tail. If a cooked crawfish has a straight tail, that means it was dead before it hit the boil, and it will taste rotten. (Most cooks do try to weed out dead crawfish beforehand.)
9. Break the crawfish in its natural middle. When you look at a crawfish, you'll see it's natural waistline, so to speak, and that's where you want to tear it apart. Break into it elsewhere, and you're much more likely to end up like my husband, covered in its juices.
10. Suck in the juices. If you're brave, before you begin to peel a crawfish, you can put your lips to the opening on its bodies and drink in its juices. Some people even draw in juices from the crawfish's head, but that's a move for more serious crawfish connoisseurs.
11. Peel the tail. When you're ready to get to the meat, start at the top of the tail and peel each shell off. (Sometimes more than one will come off at a time.) Once the meat is exposed, you can pinch it and—with any luck—pull it right out from the remaining shell pieces.
12. Check for the pooper tube (not a technical term). One gross reality of crawfish is that, like most other living creatures, they have to flush toxins from their systems, and they do so via a small, black-hued tube that runs the length of their tails. Most of the time, that tube comes off along with the shell. But to be safe, check for it before you put the meat into your mouth. If you spot it, you can simply grab one end of the tube and pull it off the meat of the tail. Wash your hands after.
13. Prepare to hear some funny noises. Table manners don’t exist at a crawfish boil. (Again, you're all covered in sticky juices and guts and who knows what else.) But in addition to those unique sights, be prepared to hear a lot of slurping sounds.
14. Clean your hands with lemon. After a boil, sometimes simple water and soap won't do. But a fresh lemon, sliced in half and rubbed on your hands, can help remove debris. If you see crawfish pieces under your nails, use a nail brush to clean them. Boil spices are potent—and if you rub your eyes with hands covered in their residue, you will regret it.
15. Shower. You will have been surrounded by boil smells for the better part of a day, and you will smell like crawfish and spice. So before you go out again, do yourself—and all the other people out and about—a big favor by showering (and changing your outfit) first.