I spread the black and white pages of The Ocala Star Banner and The Miami Herald across two picnic tables, always double or triple layering them on top of one another. Most prints were from the current week, but some had been collecting in a drawer in the kitchen since February; it was now May. I placed candles and baskets on the paper to hold the place of the feast that would soon be laid on top of it—though highly unlikely that a strong gust of wind would wipe the table clear of the papers during the toasty, central Florida summer. I queued country music on the speaker and set out solo cups for sweet tea along one of the benches. Now the tables were ready for the crawfish boil.
Crawfish boils, while predominantly known for being a Lousianna classic after the Acadians (now Cajuns) arrived from Canada in the 1700s and ate crawfish out of necessity, have their hold across most of the southern states. The tiny crawfish, which look nearly like a cross between a lobster and a shrimp, are often accompanied by baby potatoes, corn on the cob, and Andouille sausage; the Floridians can’t help but often add Gulf shrimp to the mix as well. These ingredients are tossed in seasoning, traditionally Cajun seasoning, and then left to boil. When done, what’s left is a mass amount of fresh seafood and hearty vegetables with a slight kick to it, and all for the sharing. The steaming food gets rushed onto the picnic tables and into the waiting arms of the daily newspapers, as grabbing hands try to claim the most fresh crawfish or shrimp.
Crawfish boils are more than just a meal, as people often wouldn’t make one just for themselves. The boils are a community event. Every other high school graduation party consisted of one, and even birthday parties or anniversaries centered around a giant boil. Last Christmas, instead of having a traditional Christmas meal, my grandmother—whose family is all from Louisiana—insisted on having a crawfish boil. So, after opening gifts around the Christmas tree, my cousins and I got to chopping away the bags of potatoes and shucking dozens of cobs of corn.
The process to create this meal is not tedious. The food is not gourmet. The seafood is not exotic. However, boils have maintained their popularity because of the experience that comes with them. It takes many hands to feed as many people as the meals are able to; it takes even more effort to shell the crawfish and shrimp with each bite that is taken. People are brought together throughout the entire process of the boils, from collecting the daily paper to prepping the food all the way to spreading the meal across linked picnic tables.
The spirit of the crawfish boil has infiltrated other parts of the states, with even boil restaurants experiencing success in Boston. My roommate, Fizah, and I recently ventured to the Bootleg Special, a modern and trendy restaurant where the entire menu is focused on creating a custom boil mix. Each table has a little metal bucket with stilts at the end of it, and while much more posh than the southern boils, the meals nonetheless still bring people together. While they might not be making headlines, crawfish will continue to sit on the front page of the paper.
Cover photo courtesy of BostonMagazine