Shortly after I moved from Providence, RI, to this great city in July
2009, a parishioner made the cautionary comment concerning the food here, “Watch out, this city will thicken you.” Man, was he spot-on. I thought I had this city whipped; I thought Lent would be my time to reclaim my physicality. I vowed to abstain from alcohol (yes, I’m that kind of Baptist) and to stay away from sweets.
But the dinner party invitations wouldn’t cease. Plus, how could I not celebrate in March the absence of bitter winds, piles of snow and the gloom they bring? So I adopted my wife’s Lenten pledge to stop yelling at the kids (we have three under the age of 9; you try not yelling for 40 days and 40 nights)!
We made it through Lent okay. In fact, it was the first Lent-Easter season that did not exhaust me. High holidays take their toll on religious professionals. I took up running on the streetcar tracks -- the daily near-collisions with the front ends of autos don’t even faze me anymore -- scaled back on my weekly testing of neighborhood po-boy shops and came to peace with the realization that I do not have to sample every variety of bread pudding by end of my first year here. I seemed to find a balance with the gastronomical offerings of this city and the limits of my wardrobe.
But there was one important -- no, necessary -- offering that I had to force myself to participate in: a crawfish boil.
Growing up in West Virginia I would pass idle hours overturning rocks in the creeks to catch “crawdads” (the WV equivalent of crawfish). After I amassed enough to fill my tin bucket, I would walk to the river or to the nearest pond and start fishing. Crawdads were bait. Never in a million years would I have dreamed of eating them. Largemouth bass, pike, and even channel cats ate them; humans didn’t. I’d eat a mountain oyster before I ate a crawdad.
So imagine my surprise when I saw large quantities of “mudbugs” at the grocery store, high-dollar restaurants with them on the menu, and locally made screen-printed T-shirts advising folk to pinch da tail and suck da head.
I knew, however, that if I am to officially call this place home I would have to suspend my better judgment and dig in.
Hearing and receiving no invitations, I formed my own crawfish boil under the disguise of a church picnic. The day came: 70s, light breeze and blue skies at The Fly. When I arrived, the chef was already boiling. I moseyed over, picked one of the critters up, stared at it, put it down, and started nursing an Abita. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Soon the piles of the small red crustaceans were poured on the table and into buckets. Folk grabbed a plastic pitcher and began piling gargantuan helpings onto humongous plastic trays. I watched in amazement; I could not believe folk were being so greedy and gluttonous.
Then came my turn. I smugly placed only four or five on my plate, thinking I would display proper manners. I twisted the tail, tore at the second vertebrae and popped the meat into my mouth: fantastic! In a matter of minutes I had cleared my plate and realized why folk had served themselves such heaping portions.
It wasn’t clam cakes at Point Judith, RI, with the waves of the upper Atlantic crashing against shore. Nope, it was better. Crawfish, corn on the cob, sausage, garlic on saltines, the Mississippi, and new friends. Spicy, messy, and thickening – a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I did not suck the head. I’ll need a few more amber beverages before that. Next time, perhaps.
When you see me running my now-necessary 7 miles on the streetcar tracks and I happen to run in front of your automobile, don’t honk or display your favorite number. Instead have a moment of sympathy for a citizen of this city who is enjoying it a little too much.