What started off as a cool road trip* morphed into a family-expanding, rollicking-fun, eating orgy along the Mississippi Delta.
My husband Ebo met his half-brother Steve, who lives in Mississippi, a couple of times back when Ebo was young. (He no longer is: if you happen to bump into him on the street, be sure to ask him about his upcoming Great Big Birthday. He’d really like that. ) To a 19 year-old, a much older half-brother isn’t nearly as interesting as concerts and girlfriends.
Over the years, my husband’s attention span expanded and Almighty Facebook put the brothers back in touch. Then I wrote a story for Every Day with Rachael Ray about great food road trips*, including one along the Mississippi Delta. Ebo and I promised ourselves that when we handed in the last recipe for our book we’d do the Delta and see his family.
And do the Delta we did! We started in Jackson (just below the Delta) in time to attend and say a few words at the Santé South Wine Festival, (run by Steve’s daughter Patty) and spend some time with the family. (Oh, and apologies to Patty for bringing our bad weather with us. I hear the sun came out the day we left). That night, we met the whole crew: Steve and his wife Sandra, their four adult children and their significant others. Amidst the laughter and stories, someone said something about a “crawfish bawl”. You know: spelled “boil”. But I can’t say it that way anymore, not now that I’ve been bit by Mississippi.
A crawfish boil is to the south what a clambake is to this New Englander—but bigger and with smaller crustaceans. Apparently, when you have a crawfish boil, people near and far—relations that are related in ways that are sometimes hard to follow—come to drink beer, hang out and have some crawfish and corn. They just keep coming and going (more coming than going) in a steady stream of casual Southern hospitality.
It was raining hard and it was that kind of damp cold that seeps in your bones and is resolved only by the consumption of alcohol. So with extra layers of clothing and warm, sunny souls, we hung out in (new-found niece) Carolyn’s carport– which, it turns out, makes a darn good place to have a crawfish boil. Ebo’s nephew David picked up seventy pounds of crawfish (70 pounds!) and patiently explained to me how this thing goes down.
You begin with a big pot that has a steamer-like basket insert. But you aren’t steaming anything—that just makes it easier to lift the solid food out of the broth. Under the pot is a propane fire, which is important because it takes a lot of fire power to keep that big pot at a rolling boil.
The pot is filled with water seasoned with seafood boil spice blend, like Zatarain’s Crawfish, Shrimp and Crab Boil. (You may add your own spices to the mix: garlic powder, cayenne, coriander, allspice, paprika, etc.) In this case, there was corn, potatoes, mushrooms and venison sausage (from a deer one of them got) added to the pot. I’ve since heard about all sorts of vegetables used, but a boil almost always includes corn and potatoes.
You start with live crawfish, which you may let party a bit before they meet their final end. If you wave your hand over the cooler, they’ll all stand up and dance, like that middle fellow in the photo below.
You might also take them for a swing,
or show your little niece how to make what someone told me is called the “red neck earring”.
Now, the crawfish might get thirsty from all that activity, so its good manners to share your beer…
And then you give them all a nice spa bath in salt water.
Cook them up with all kinds of tasty things in the pot
And when its ready, throw all of it on to a table lined with newspaper. (Yet another reason we must ensure newspapers never die).
If you’re a Northerner, you need a lesson and a couple of practice tries until you can easily pop the crawfish meat out of the shell and into your mouth. But you master it quickly, and then the next batch goes in the pot.
Each successive batch gets spicier and spicier, and the most fiery part is the corn and the ‘shrooms. So you have another something to drink, and you hang out in the den for a while, and by the time your mouth is cooled another batch is ready…
You head back out to the carport, all shivery and cold, and light your mouth on fire and talk to the folks who are either hardy enough or have had enough to drink that they’re not bothered by the cold.
Then you go back in to your spot on the couch to warm up and someone says to you, “Well, look at you. You just fit right in”. And a different kind of warmth courses through your insides and you think, “How lucky am I?”
– With thanks to the Mississippi Bonoms.
*which really began as a story I was busting to write, and when I finally did my editors and I won a great big award for the “Best Travel” magazine piece of the year. You can read an online version of it here.