~ some Spice Advice from a New Orleans lady ~
Tip #1 – Dress Down and No Rings
Peeling and eating crawfish is messy business, if you’re doing it right. You’ll be sucking heads and pinching tails and crawfish juice will drip down your arms, so save that super cute outfit or the Tommy Bahama for another day and wear something you don’t mind getting messy. Don’t wear any rings because they’re just gonna get gross and be difficult to clean.
True story: A good friend of mine is STILL mad at her husband after all these years for using a crawfish boil as the “cover story” for her surprise baby shower. Can you imagine? She showed up wearing an old t-shirt and cutoff shorts, hair swept up in a ponytail, thinking she was about to get messy at a crawfish boil and then walks in the door to see all her friends and family dressed up for a baby shower. After the initial shock, she turns to her husband and says, “a CRAWFISH boil?!?! Why didn’t you tell me I was going to someone else’s shower so I’d at least be dressed properly?”
Tip #2 – Do NOT Wear Contact Lenses
Classic rookie mistake. You’ll understand why when you take ‘em out tonight.
Tip #3 – Peel Like a Pro
Like any skill, peeling crawfish takes a little practice to master. I’ve been peeling my own crawfish since I was three years old (what can I say? My parents valued “independence”), so here’s some simple guidance if you’re new to this:
Step 1: Twist and pull off the head. It may seem barbaric at first, but trust me, you’ll quickly get used to it and tap into your more primal self. If the claws look pretty big – you can eat those just like you would crab claws. The meet inside is very tender and sweet, but be advised, the claws do take on a lot of water, so they will be extra spicy.
Step 2 (optional): Suck the head. If you love spice, you’ll love this step.
Step 3 (optional): Stick your index finger into the head and scoop upward and out. This removes the delicious mustard-like “fat” from the crawfish, which you can then suck off of your finger. It doesn’t taste like mustard, but it has a similar color and consistency. I recommend you try this at least once, to see if you like the fat or not. It’s nothing like any animal fat you’ve eaten—the flavor is unique, so you just have to try it, okay? Be adventurous! You’re eating mudbugs, for cryin’ out loud!! Go all the way with it, man!
Step 4: Hold the tail in your non-dominant hand and with your dominant hand, grasp the underside between the small legs. In one motion, squeeze, twist, and pull off to remove. Ideally, you’re getting the first two or three segments of the crawfish’s shell off in this step.
Step 5: Pinch the tail as you gently pull out the crawfish meat in one full piece.
Step 6 (optional): Deveining crawfish is a lot easier than deveining shrimp because you don’t need a knife to do it. The meat layer (eat this!) over the vein usually separates from the crawfish once you remove it from the shell, so you can just peel that flap back and remove the vein with your fingers. If that flap is stuck in the shell, pull it out and eat it, that’s a good part so don’t waste it!
It might sound like a lot of steps, but really you get the hang of it quickly. Not to brag, but I can peel a few crawfish in under a minute. And it’s not a competition! At a crawfish boil, everyone who eats is winning!
Tip #4 – Mind Your Hands
Usually, it’s a good idea to wash your hands after every couple of pounds of crawfish you’ve picked. There’s quite a lot of cayenne pepper and other types of pepper, salt, and seasonings in “seafood boil” (that’s what we New Orleanians call the spices used in a crawfish, crab, or shrimp boil). In fact, a LOT of pepper and spice goes into each batch – it’s not because anyone wants your taste buds burned off, it’s because these yummy crawdads are encased in their own armor, and the water they’re boiled in must be very well-seasoned in order for those spices to get into the parts we actually eat! But it also means all those spices and peppers are on the outside of the shells, which is what your hands will be all over.
There’s no need to be scared, just be aware of this. While eating crawfish, do not rub your eyes, your nose, or touch your newborn baby’s face. Cayenne burns, even if you’ve wiped off with paper towels! Now you know the reasoning behind tip #2… just because you’ve washed your hands, doesn’t mean there’s not still residual pepper on there. Don’t be paranoid, just be mindful.
Tip #5 – Enjoy the Burn
New Orleanians know there’s a true sweet-spot when it comes to spice levels. I’m no chef, but I can tell you that properly seasoned crawfish make my lips start burning about halfway through the first pound, but I still want to keep eating ‘em. If my lips are on fire and no amount of beer or root beer will soothe them after the first crawfish, that’s too spicy. If I’m not feeling any burn after the first pound or two, that’s not spicy enough.
Now, I know I have a higher tolerance for spice than most Coloradans, and that’s why this isn’t quite an exact science. If you’re from Thailand, you’d probably feed your infant some spicy crawfish and not think twice. If you’re from the Midwest, even the tamest boils are gonna set your hair on fire. It’s just in New Orleans, there’s sort of a “baseline” level of spice, so we’re all pretty used to it.
My advice to you is to embrace the spice and enjoy the burn. It’s nothing another beer from Burly’s or Barq’s can’t calm. The corn, sausage, and potatoes are going to be spicy too, because they were cooked in the same seasoned water as the crawfish. And the later in the day it gets, the spicier the batches become. I can’t say whether this is because we’ve already consumed a fair amount of spice at that point, or if it’s because the ones cooking have had many more beers that much later in the day, so they’re more heavy-handed with the cayenne, but I know the last batch of crawfish is always quite a bit spicier than the first.
So if you’re a lightweight when it comes to pepper, arrive early to the crawfish boil to partake of one of the first batches. And maybe pick up some Tums and a gallon of milk on the way home.
Tip #6 – Don’t Be Shy
When you’re invited to a crawfish boil in New Orleans, it’s at a friend’s or family member’s house, not a restaurant, so it’s picnic-style. Long tables are put together end-to-end and covered with newspaper. Each person is given a huge tray and you take a seat. The host gets a strong friend or two to help pour out each steaming hot spicy batch – right down the center of the table. You pick your crawfish from the center and leave your shells on your tray. When your tray is full, you dump it in the designated trash can (there’s always a designated can for this… remember, it’s HOT and humid this time of year in New Orleans, so you’d NEVER throw away crawfish shells in an indoor trash can), wash your hands, get another beer and offer to grab another drink from the cooler for anyone who wants (because they’re all still eating, and your hands are now clean). Then you take your seat or stand or pick a new seat, and start all over. It’s an all-day event as you eat, drink, relax, talk, laugh, and as we say in New Orleans, “pass a good time.” At the end of the day, your shirt has some new splotches, you’ve eaten and drunk your fill, and you’ve likely made a few new friends. But of course you’re not SHY at a New Orleans crawfish boil – if you were invited, odds are you know most if not everyone who’s attending. So it’s a relaxed, easygoing time all-around.
Outside of New Orleans, crawfish boils are a real treat, but they often don’t work quite the same way. Usually a restaurant hosts the event, and things are a bit more civilized. Hot crawfish are portioned out per person, city folk laugh as they timidly try to get at the sweet, tender meat that awaits them inside those mysterious spicy and salty red shells, and beers a-plenty are enjoyed. For many people, this may be their first time trying this Cajun delicacy, it’s a paid event they’re attending, and it’s possible that they don’t know anyone else in attendance.
But that’s no reason to be shy! So just for today, why not imagine you’ve been invited to this crawfish bowl by a good friend and you’re here to meet all their friends and talk it up and “pass a good time.” Start a conversation with someone you haven’t met yet, ask about their mama-n-dem, whether or not they’re dressing up for Mardi Gras this year, and where they went to school. Believe it or not, this common conversation starter in New Orleans, ALWAYS means high school. I have a master’s degree, but whenever I’m in New Orleans and someone asks me where I went to school, I always tell them my high school, because that is ALWAYS what they want to know. Then they start listing all the people they know who went to that school, and then I reciprocate, and usually within just a couple of minutes, there’s a connection with a no-longer-stranger, with just a couple of degrees of separation. And that’s why people feel like family when they’re in New Orleans.
See you at the Crawfish Boil!!!