They don’t serve beer on Death Row.
I know this not from personal experience but because, having spent a good bit of my life in and around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I think about food. A lot. So I’ve given a lot of thought to the question “If you were on Death Row, what would be your last meal?”
My last meal would, without a doubt, be hot, spicy boiled crawfish and cold beer. But the State apparently wants its inmates sober before they kill them, hence the prohibition on alcohol in the Big House. And hence my quandary: Anywhere else, my last meal would be accompanied by beer. But Angola or Parchman? Barq’s Root Beer.
Crawfish – or ecrevisse, as you’ll see on many fancy menus – are kin to lobsters. They are, therefore, delicious. The meat is firm, but delicate. The texture is softer than shrimp, and the flavor more subtle. They can be sautéed, fried… pretty much any way you’d cook a shrimp. But boiling is the best and by far most popular.
A crawfish boil is my most favorite social gathering. Geno Delafose (or Dave Matthews) is playing. The weather is cooperating. The sun is dipping. Friends are standing around a piece of sawhorse-propped plywood with the Times-Picayune as a table cloth, laughing, eating, drinking, bonhomie and gustatory bliss pervading.
The preparation for a crawfish boil is as enjoyable to me as the actual eating. Icing the drinks, quartering the onions and lemons, separating the garlic, tending the fire, spicing the boil (the water), prepping the accouterments, all with a trusted friend or two. A huge (around 80 quarts) boiling pot with a mesh basket is hoisted atop a propane cooker that, when lit, sounds like a jet fighter. It takes some time for all that water to come to a boil. Generally, around 1.25 beers. Your pace may vary, depending on your burner. And your beer.
You can buy pre-mixed solid/granulated spice mixes, liquid boil, or make your own. Deanie’s Seafood in Bucktown, New Orleans, mixes and sells their own dry spice mix and it is perfection. Now that I live a day’s drive from New Orleans, I settle with—and augment—Zatarain’s. Their 63-ounce jar (think of the biggest Skippy Peanut Butter jar. Now think bigger) will last a couple of boils. There are plenty of recipes out there, but my advice and practice is to add to them… salt and spice. The first batch is the test batch. You want it enjoyably spicy and salty, but the crustaceans will absorb some of the spices. So you need to add to subsequent batches. Whatever amount of spice I use on the first batch, I tend to add about 1/5-1/4 that amount to the second, slightly less to the third, etc. up to about the fourth batch.
“According to taste” is never more true than in a crawfish boil. They are hot—pepper hot. They are salty. If they’re not, you’ve done something wrong. People react differently to spicy crawfish (and other foods). I have friends who sweat on their foreheads or down their backs or get slightly out of breath. Me? I know they’re hot enough when my nose runs. But this is not a bad thing. If you don’t like spicy foods, you should not have started reading this.
To the crawfish and spice, you must add… things. Things that not only add taste, but are also eaten with the crawfish. I feel that the must-haves are onions, potatoes, corn, sausage and garlic. I have seen an amazing assortment of other… things… added, including broccoli, mushrooms, olives, boiled eggs, hot dogs, carrots, cauliflower. One of life’s sublime pleasures is to take a “foot” or pod of garlic that has been boiled with crawfish and smoosh it out onto a saltine cracker. It is almost better than sex.
To accompany the spice, it is necessary to have cold drinks. Soft drinks and water, but also beer. I’m a beer snob. I prefer a nicely crafted and tasty IPA or pale ale. But for a crawfish boil, you want your basic Bud or Miller Lite. They will be consumed in quantities. Not sipped, but slugged to counter the spice. I will admit that when I throw a crawfish boil, I stash a few tasty beers for my most special attendees, and for myself for dessert.
And dessert… I’m not a big dessert eater, but a little sumpin’ sweet will counter the pepper on the palate; your guests will appreciate it. When I lived in New Orleans, a White Russian from a nearby drive-through daiquiri shop was definitely the icing for afters.
By the time the first batch is ready, I have “sampled” sufficiently that I’m not starving. So while I might naturally envy my guests when 40 lbs of hot, steaming crustaceans are spread before them, I don’t mind stepping back to admire my work on the table, and then putting the pot back on to boil for the next batch. And watching my guests tuck in and get their hands dirty and their bellies full… that’s just lagniappe. The “early shift” will tire soon enough and back away from the mounds of emptied shells on the table. I’ll sidle in and shell and eat a few pounds (maybe even peeling a few for pretty girl who’s never tried them), by which time the second batch is ready to go in the boiling water. And the cycle begins again: “Pick the biggest crawfish in the pile. Shell. Eat. Repeat.”
Practical Notes: Figure between 2-4 lbs of live crawfish for each guest, depending on their appetites and what other food is served. To counter the aroma after peeling and eating crawfish, rinse your hands with fresh cut lemons. Or toothpaste. Peeling crawfish… it’s not as hard as you think. Snap the head from the body, squeeze the head into your mouth and suck the juices (yes, do this), grasp the tail between your thumb and forefinger, pinch at the base with your thumb, and wiggle the tail meat out of the shell. Some find this difficult. It’s not. It just takes practice. And if you invite me to your boil, I’ll gladly show you how it’s done.