18 May 2011

Crawfish Boil

A year ago, my friends Grace and Marshall hosted a crawfish boil on Mother's Day. It was partially to celebrate their new house, and partially to celebrate the holiday, and partially because Mars lived in New Orleans for years and you don't need much of an excuse to gather friends and cook up a bunch of mudbugs. This year they pushed it a week later, and amazingly, Memphis got hit with a cold snap. While May is normally the beginning of our dear River City's sweaty season, the temperature dipped down to a pleasant 16°C/60°F. I was ecstatic but the ladies were running to grab hoodies and huddled inside for a while.

At the first crawfish boil, a particular crustacean who exhibited stamina and good cheek was pardoned and adopted as a household pet. Louie survived for almost a full year, happily nibbling on kitchen scraps. Considering that Procambarus clarkii spends most of its time in ditches gnawing on dead fish and other detritus, Louie had it made. I'm just holding a random crawfish here, but this year's honored arthropod has been named Louie II, perhaps because of his resemblance to the 9th century French monarch Louis le B├Ęgue. (Young Ian preferred the name Peter Parker, but that got a maternal veto.)

I don't have the exact recipe, but here's how the crawfish were prepared. They were rinsed and purged ahead of time, with the dead ones tossed aside. Mars and his friends have been in the restaurant business for years, and we all know that you don't take chances with shellfish. A massive cauldron of water was put on top of a propane burner like you use for a turkey fryer. Zatarain's Crab Boil was added, and the pot included red potatoes, corn cobs, whole onions, and entire heads of garlic. Let it all cook to perfection, and them dump the whole mess on a table covered in newspapers and let proper manners be damned.

28kg/60lbs of crawfish were cooked for about a dozen happy eaters. That sounds like a lot, but when you're just "pinching tails and sucking heads" there's a lot leftover. A lobster yields about 25% edible meat, while a crawfish is only about 15% edible. (With lobsters it's also easier to eat things like the tomalley and roe, and it's not really worth picking apart a crawfish.) The best part is the succulent, sweet tail meat that looks like a small shrimp when you peel it and strip out the vein. A fun part of a crawfish boil is when you dig through the pile and find a really big one, which means that you can get a little claw meat out of its pincers.

Pabst Blue Ribbon is now brewed just outside of Chicago, but I still associate its 150 year history with Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over time the public image of the beer has changed substantially while the product has remained the same. It was a respected American beer, then it was a solid working-class beer, and by the 80s it was almost a joke, consumed by the elderly or those who couldn't spare the extra buck or two for the marketing giants like Coors and Budweiser. In the past ten years, the brand has exploded as an ironic hipster favorite, like listening to vinyl or collecting old View-Masters.

There's a time and a place for a cold, crisp, uncomplicated lager, and a crawfish boil is that kind of occasion. You're eating spicy food, getting shells and legs everywhere, and you're talking to your friends. It's not a time to ponder and argue about hops and barley or about the bitterness level. This isn't the time to get your greasy fingerprints all over some beautiful label that was printed on sustainable organic paper with a Banksy design. No, just sit back and enjoy yourself and don't overthink it.


fredric koeppel said...

well-written account of what must have been a great time ... unfortunately, I am not a fan of crayfish; lots of work for little reward it seems to me. I agree about the keeping the beer simple and appropriate for the occasion, like not serving classified growth Bordeaux at a cook-out.

Benito said...


Thanks! You're right about the work involved, which is why it was a treat having others do all the cooking.


Mars said...

Frederic - you are most certainly invited to the next one if you'd like. And while Bordeaux may be out of the question, I don't see how a little Txakoli or Trebbiano ever hurt anyone.

{I saw you Saturday at ACRE - my new employer. Hope you enjoyed yourself and looking forward to seeing you there soon!)

Ben - I regret to inform you that Louis II A.K.A 'Louis the Stammerer' has perished. Not sure if it was an assassination or the Black Death, but he reigns no more. Ellie will resume the throne until a new Ruler is chosen.

Benito said...


I hope that Louie II got a proper send off with a processional and the horns.

And now I'm going to be dreaming about Txakoli and crawfish. Throw a little chorizo in with everything else and I think we've got a proper Basque dish.


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