Here in South Louisiana, people love boiled seafood. Ask anyone about it, and you’ll get the low-down on their favorite crustacean delicacy. Next, they’ll inevitably lament about how they just don’t get to eat it as often as they’d like. And while the actual consumption of seafood is one part of this experience, the other (equally intriguing) part of the experience is the sense of community and togetherness that the process of boiling seafood creates. The art of communal eating is practiced, revered, and celebrated in South Louisiana.
By their very nature, seafood boils are a group affair. Boil pots are tens of gallons in size, and the typical sack of crawfish can serve between six and eight people. The whole notion is built on feeding groups of people. Even though seafood is widely available locally here in Southeast Louisiana, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap or feasible to cook often. As with many other things these days, seafood has gotten more expensive than it used to be. The result of this has been fewer seafood boils for people, but that makes them all the more special.
The community aspect starts well before the red shells hit the table. When dealing with large quantities of seafood, it takes more than one set of hands to prepare for the boil. The seafood must be rinsed and dealt with before it can be cooked. Traditionally, the men at the boil tend to take care of the preparation of the seafood. It’s not just seafood: there are vegetables for the boil to be cleaned and sorted. This is a great task for the kids to help out with, though the kids always seem drawn to the rinsing of the seafood, too, as you can see below.
Once everything’s in the rolling boiling water in the pot, there’s a lull in preparation activities, which provides ample time for talking and visiting. People tend to catch up on the goings-on in each other’s lives, and the kids take this opportunity to play games and run around the yard. Everyone’s anxiously awaiting the seafood that’s just minutes from hitting the table. There’s typically a buzz in the air as it gets closer to eating time. The positive tension becomes palpable. Someone comments on being starving. Everyone groans in unison: “We’re SO ready to eat!”
Then we finally get to the part that everyone loves: the eating! Again, it’s a very communal thing. The boiled seafood — whether it be crabs, crawfish, or shrimp – is scattered steaming on a large table lined with trays or newspaper. People stand around the table eating and talking and going about their business.
The talking is typically very sparse at the beginning as people just eat and eat and EAT their way through the mounds of crawfish, potatoes, corn, and smoked sausage. The whole affair can last anywhere from several minutes to an hour, depending on how many people are in attendance and how much seafood has been prepared.
As the eating winds down, the conversation starts back up in earnest. The women and older children get to peeling the leftovers for an etouffee or bisque later. The men get to the cleaning and picking up of the equipment. In Cajun country, communal work tasks are still very much divided along gender lines. People play to their strengths. The community benefits as a result because everyone does what they’re best able to contribute to the group. People leave full and happy. Another successful event.
When talking about seafood boils, it’s important to realize that the seafood is secondary. People really do love their crabs, crawfish, and shrimp, but the community and getting together aspect is what’s truly meaningful. Sure, you could buy some pre-boiled crawfish at the grocery store, sit alone at home, and peel and eat it, but it’s just not the same. The communal part is stripped away and the seafood, inevitably, just doesn’t taste quite as good.