Some people think of those weeks just before Christmas, when the lights are twinkling and Bing Crosby is inescapable, as the most wonderful time of the year. But for me, and many people in my home state of Louisiana, that distinction is reserved for something else entirely: crawfish season.
Beginning in November, crawfish season typically peaks in the late spring, as the tiny freshwater crustaceans grow into full maturity. Conveniently, late April or May is the perfect time for families all across the South to get outside, invite their family and friends to their backyard, and host a crawfish boil.
When I was a kid, the annual family crawfish boil was a major event, even after I’d moved to Texas. We’d load up the car and drive to my grandparents’ little log cabin in Louisiana, where my grandfather and uncle would spend hours preparing for the boil. First, they’d “purge” the crawfish, which involves soaking the critters in salted water to, theoretically, remove waste material and other impurities. (Research now shows that using salt water is not effective as a purging method, but that has not stopped the practice in my family.) As the crawfish would soak, my cousins and I would do battle in “crawfish fights,” which involved pelting one another with pissed-off, pinch-happy mudbugs.
Then the adults would set up an outdoor propane burner, fill up an enormous pot of water, and set it on to boil. As soon as the water would start to steam, we’d begin pestering our parents about when the feast would be ready. My grandma would be inside preparing her famous tartar and punchy cocktail sauces, and covering her giant dining room table with old copies of the Shreveport Times to protect it from the crawfish juice. Someone would inevitably source a slew of beer flats, or cardboard trays used to transport canned beverages, that we’d use as makeshift plates.
You knew things were really getting started once the scent of Louisiana Crab Boil, a potent liquid seasoning concentrate, would begin perfuming the air with its spicy cayenne aroma. Shortly thereafter, we’d be shooed away from the pot for fear of getting burned, or simply getting on Papaw’s nerves. The crawfish didn’t take long to cook, but you did have to wait for them to soak in the heavily seasoned cooking liquid (alongside corn, potatoes, and maybe some andouille sausage if you were feeling fancy) to fully absorb the flavor. When that process — which as a 7-year-old felt like an eternity — was over, the grown-ups would pour the massive aluminum strainer pot of steaming red crawfish into a row of coolers, and we’d all fight for a place in line to fill our beer flats with the bounty.
Back at the table, my Granny would always try to get us to pray together before we dug in, but usually we were all too impatient. We’d sit around the table, peeling crawfish like we were getting paid, shoveling the morsels of meat we’d just liberated into our mouths as we engaged in our most beloved family pastime: making fun of one another. We were warned, incessantly, to not touch our eyes or go to the bathroom without first washing our hands thoroughly; the mudbugs were so spicy that we’d be fighting back a runny nose while cramming them into our faces. Thank God for Granny’s tartar sauce.
The vibe of these crawfish boils was always unmatched. The adults were all in a good mood, probably thanks to the copious beer supply, and the kids were allowed to run around like maniacs, as long as we didn’t interfere with the cooking process. Plus, you could usually count on sneaking a sip or two of beer from a slightly tipsy adult.
As my grandparents got older, my parents started taking over the crawfish boil hosting duties. In the ’90s in North Texas, crawfish boils weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and I loved that my family had a tradition that felt particularly unique. I didn’t give a rip about boring backyard cookouts with overcooked burgers — not when our prized summer fare was a delicacy like crawfish. I’d invite my friends over to our yearly boils and smugly watch as they struggled to peel even a few while I demolished my giant pile. Then I would eat theirs.
Over the years, our family’s crawfish boils grew and changed. My grandparents died when I was in high school, and we’ve intermittently kept the tradition alive in the ensuing years. My uncle has taken over crawfish-cooking duties, and he is very, very good at it. But because we’ve all grown up and have lives and jobs and different priorities, the boils no longer happen every year. It’s just too hard to coordinate everyone’s schedules. And besides, crawfish cost a lot more than a dollar a pound these days. I am comforted, though, by the fact that crawfish culture, both in and outside of Louisiana, endures.
At this very moment, somewhere south of I-10, somebody’s uncle is painstakingly planning his own crawfish boil. Maybe he’s got one of those fancy, newfangled crawfish cookers that can cook 90 pounds of bugs at once, complete with levers that make it easier to heft that enormous pot off the burner. He’s stocking up on bottles of crab boil, cutting lemons to flavor his cooking water, and buying lots (and lots) of beer. He’s calling all the cousins and reminding them to show up right at 2 p.m. because if they’re late (as usual), they’re going to miss out.
Each crawfish boil is as different as the person who’s doing the cooking. Every cook has their own methodologies, secret ingredients, and deeply held beliefs about the right way to approach the crawfish boil. I am sure there is a Louisianan or two who is rolling their eyes at my north-of-I-10 characterization because their own Papaw does it totally differently. Maybe they use a different brand of seasoning or add a big jug of orange juice for a citrusy flavor. And that’s fine! I don’t care how those people do their crawfish boils because I am equally confident that my family’s way is the Right Way.
But I also appreciate that crawfish boils are increasingly making their way outside of Louisiana — and outside of the backyard. Just over the state line, Houston has its own ragingly popular crawfish boil culture, one that’s deeply influenced by the city’s own culinary identity. There’s an abundance of Viet-Cajun seafood restaurants where the crawfish are boiled, then stir-fried with butter and spices. I spent six years covering Houston’s food scene, and despite many memorable meals, there are few I can recall more vividly than my first trip to Crawfish & Noodles, a much-lauded Chinatown destination. There, the garlicky, lemongrass-infused butter sauce that coated the crawfish, steamed in traditional Cajun spices, was a revelation.
Crawfish boil culture persists because, at its core, it is an endlessly adaptable format. You don’t even have to cook crawfish to achieve the same effect — crab, shrimp, or a gigantic pot of steamed mussels all do the trick. The result is an indelible combination of good vibes, mouthwatering eats, and a sense of communal joy. All you need is a big ole pot of boiling water and an open mind.