Louisiana’s crawfish season is in full swing, and no doubt, folks are coming to town to belly up to a table full of boiled crawfish for the first time. My daughter Lauren’s friend Gunner from Los Angeles recently visited us, and he couldn’t wait to taste his first boiled crawfish. I gave him a list of my 6 Things to Know Before You Go, and he dove into a 5-pound order like a champ. An hour later he came up for air with a smile on his face. Yep, a new convert to the gospel of Cajun crawfish. In case you missed it, here’s a recap of my “rules” for eating boiled crawfish.
This is a recipe for success. Instead of giving you detailed Cajun recipe instructions for boiling crawfish (there are hundreds of them online), I’m giving you the essential first-timer rules for eating boiled crawfish. A more apt name for my story is “How to Eat Boiled Crawfish Without Looking Like a Tourist,” and while my tutorial is sure to provoke controversy or at least stoke commentary, I believe the “art of the boil” is long overdue for discussion.
As far as local culinary traditions go, eating boiled crawfish in the springtime is a Cajun/Creole seasonal social outing that is second nature to anyone raised on the bayou. But I have lots of out-of-towners that are anxious to eat boiled crawfish for the very first time. And they all want to know in advance what the “rules of engagement” are for this mysterious culinary ritual. How to dress? How to prepare? How to keep from making a fool of yourself? These are good questions, and if you follow these six simple rules you will look, act, and peel like a local, not a yokel.
6 Things to Know Before You Go
1- Dress Appropriately.
No fancy schmancy Charleston seersucker, socialite, dressy duds. Dress down, not up. Jeans are perfectly fine. Don’t wear a white shirt – darker the better, and short sleeves are recommended. By the way, you may be offered a bib (yes, some waiters can recognize a newbie from across the room) and feel free to use it as many experienced locals do. Although I’ve seen 300-pound oilfield roustabouts wearing bibs (usually with a picture of a lobster on it), I find it unnecessary. It’s a personal thing. Besides, that’s why I’m wearing the dark shirt. And for goodness’ sake, take out your contact lenses and wear your glasses, the spice on your hands will linger no matter how many times you wash them.
2- Beer in Hand.
No wine. No sweet tea. No mojito-rita-tini frappe. Just an ice-cold bottle of beer. Or two. And if you’re a teetotaler, opt for water, which you will need anyway.
3- The Order of Things.
If at a backyard crawfish boil, the standing position along a long table covered with newspaper is the usual method. If eating crawfish for the first time in a restaurant, sit. Order the five-pound tray (trust me, you’ll want it all). Order it seasoned “mild,” — remember, you are a first-timer; don’t go kamikaze on me. “Mild” is boiled in seasoned water and is plenty hot to most neophytes, and I’ve seen a lot of brutes buckle under the pressure of a “spicy hot” mound of mudbugs. Anyway, you can always sprinkle on a little Cajun seasoning at the table. Ask for another beer.
4- The Add-Ons.
Stick with tradition. Get the corn and potatoes, and especially the onions (they are not like any onions you’ve ever eaten – spicy, yet sweet). Pass on the trendy mushrooms, artichokes, sausage links, and any other add-on du jour taking up room in the boiling pot (and your stomach). Sauce is optional, but if you’re a “dunker,” make your own dipping sauce–ketchup, mayo, horseradish, Worcestershire, lemon juice, and hot sauce–in any varying intensity that strikes your fancy. Order another beer.
5- The Steaming Hot Tray.
With a mountain of screaming hot, just-out-of-the-pot boiled crawfish sitting right in front of you, you are now in uncharted waters. As you take a whiff and your sinuses open up, it’s time to wipe the fog from your glasses and survey the massive mound of steaming mudbugs in front of you. Your first primal instinct is fear of the unknown. Don’t panic. Don’t run. Resist any inner urge to scream for help. Roll up your sleeves and take a long drink of ice-cold beer.
Don’t even think about asking someone to peel your crawfish for you. The bayou rule is “you’ve got to peel your crawfish bayou self.” Look around the restaurant, and you’ll even see five-year-old kids peeling their own; it is a Cajun rite of passage.
Survey your tray of crawfish; it’s okay if the sizes vary, but they should all look uniform in color (red) with curled tails. Old-school locals swear that a straight-tail crawfish is dead before it is cooked, but that is debatable. I always listen to experience and suggest removing and discarding them anyway.
Tackle the tray head-on. Align your sauce bowl to one side and your shell basket to the other. Take the first crawfish with the tail in your left hand and the head in your right. Break off the head and in one motion bring it to your waiting mouth and squeeze. Sucking the head juices spiked with crawfish fat and spicy seasoning is a ceremonial entry into the Cajun world. With that one act of legitimacy, you have now removed any trace of being a tourist and have firmly established yourself as a crawfish-eating local.
Next, you have several tail-peeling options. First up is the impressively skillful, one-handed bite-pull-and-pinch technique that you will see many seasoned Cajuns use. Even I haven’t mastered this one, so let’s move on to more manageable methods for getting the tail meat out of the shell. My wife subscribes to the two-thumbs technique of splitting open the tail down the middle and lifting out the meat. I am more methodical: Hold the tail in your right hand and with your left hand, peel the first and second rings of shell from the tail while squeezing the bottom of the tail with the thumb of your right hand. This pinching action will free the tail-meat. Take a quick look at it and remove any black vein (similar to a shrimp) along the back of the tail. You can now dunk it into your bowl of dipping sauce and devour. Take a swig of beer and repeat about 50 more times.
Watch the repetitive action of others around you and find your rhythm – your peeling pace. And have fun; it’s a party. As crawfish juices run down your arms (you should have worn short sleeves) and your tongue tingles from the peppery heat, you will be overcome with a sense of joy and understanding of how delightfully delicious this culturally significant culinary ritual is. And you will feel victorious in your accomplishment.
Congratulations. You are now a bona fide, head-suckin’, tail pinchin’, boiled crawfish expert.
6- After the Boil.
You will inevitably have a mound of leftover crawfish (that’s why you ordered five pounds). While sipping your beer, invite everyone to continue peeling until you have a big pile of tail meat. This is for the crawfish étouffée you will be making the next day, and I can assure you this Cajun recipe will be the best smothered crawfish over rice you’ve ever tasted. I even like to bag up all the discarded heads and shells to make a flavorful crawfish stock. Simply wash off the excess spice and add them to a stockpot filled halfway with water. Simmer for two hours and strain off the rich stock. The essence of fat and flavor from the crawfish are perfect for any seafood gumbo, bisque, or étouffée.
And once you’ve finished peeling, clean your hands like a local by crumbling a couple of saltine crackers (they are most always on the table) between your hands. Squeeze a lemon in your palms and wipe your hands with a fresh napkin.
And one more thing: I want to hear from you. What did I miss? Please comment on this story and let us all know your take on eating boiled crawfish with any “dos and don’ts” that will add to the discussion.
And finally, here’s my Cajun recipe for Classic Crawfish Étouffée.
- 1 pound unsalted butter
- 2 cups diced yellow onion
- 1 cup diced green bell pepper
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 pounds Louisiana crawfish tail meat
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup crawfish stock or seafood stock
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Dash of hot sauce
- ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 cup diced green onion tops
- 4 cups cooked Louisiana long-grain white rice, such as Supreme
- In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the onions, bell pepper, and celery. Sauté until tender and add the garlic. Lower the heat to simmer and stir to combine. Season the mixture with cayenne and add the crawfish tail meat stirring to combine.
- Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to incorporate and begin cooking the flour. Add some of the stock and continuing stirring until it begins to thicken. Add more stock until you get a stew-like thickness.
- Season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Serve over a mound of white rice garnished with chopped parsley and green onion tops.