années passées, Chere (Years Gone By Dear)

The air in Louisiana is so thick at times, you could take a bite of it and chew it up. My favorite time of year there is always Fall/Winter and I grew up loving those seasons for a lot of reasons, but mainly because when those seasons arrived, so did the seasonal fare that came with it. 

The red cemented patio of my parent's ranch style brick home was littered with my family. My brother and me, along with my cousins played in the backyard with the usual excitement, despite the ability to not end up in a pool of sweat from the slightest exertion. My uncles and dad, cap adorned and propped in mesh folding chairs, coozied cold ones in hand while the "old language" flowed from their cigarette smoke clouded mouths, talked eagerly to one another as they caught up on the latest news of friends and family...gossip if you will.

The red mesh bag sat in the sun while the cat circled it's movement curiously. My mom is in the house with my aunts getting corn and potatoes ready while Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers and Zydecco tunes filled the background. The huge steel pot outside was coming to a boil and the time was near. My dad walked over to the red bag and cut the top open and I could see the bubbles start. Crawfish blow bubbles when they are agitated. Growing up in Cajun Country, you have to come to terms with the fact that your daddies/papas/men of the houses are hunters, farmers, and fisherman and with that comes death. My dad took a few out so we could see them walk around with claws pinching and the cat thinking a new toy had arrived as he pawed and swiped at them. I always mentally said goodbye to them, but never watched my dad initiate the mass execution of these crustaceans, or maybe I blocked it from my childhood memories.

I was probably about 5 or 6 at that time. My Uncle Leroy called me over on one of my loops through the family circle and asked me to come over. My Uncle Leroy had silvery white hair and he slicked it back with pomade like a true old school country/western star. He always wore western shirts, the kind with the pearly buttons, and he had a pair of cowboy boots that would shame any faddist. Uncle Leroy was always a gentle man. He always made me laugh and he had a great smile. "Come see, Chere," he called. I ran up to him and he asked me if I ever tasted a beer before. I giggled, and tell him, "Nooooo, Uncle Leroy!" He tells me to have a little sip, just a little one, and I go for it. For the record, “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” resulted in the face a baby makes when he has grapefruit or peas for the first time --- in other words I would not be making Schlitz famous by any means to my tasting abilities. For many, many years of my life, I resisted beer because of that first time experience. My mother was quite happy with that reaction.

My mom comes out with the potatoes and corn and puts them in the large pot with the Louisiana Crawfish Boil seasoning. It's on! Within the 15-20 minutes of the boil, the picnic table in our backyard gets covered in newspaper and soon it's time to dump all the goodies onto it. All the different shades of red make my mouth water and I cannot wait to shell the first one. My family comes together and we begin to pinch and peel the tails off, dipping it in the drawn butter, taking breaks to eat potatoes and corn. I was always proud if I got a lot of meat from the claws. It was like a rite of passage learning to eat crawfish. I am, however, not one who sucks the heads of these creatures. Yes, I know it's where all the flavor is, but I cannot bear to do this. My mother on the other hand...well, let's just say she isn't one to spare meat of any kind. You should see her eat ribs!

We are all laughing and talking as we devour our 50 pounds of crawfish. People always ask me what crawfish tastes like, I always answer, "Pure heaven!" I always found crawfish to be much more flavorful than lobster and less sweet. The seasoning definitely helps with this and I don't mean Old Bay. For me, crawfish brings back a lot of memories growing up and although my family always got together for eventful meals, I always loved our crawfish boils. Having my Uncle Leroy visit from Texas was always a treat as well and it seemed appropriate that he would be the one to give me my first sip of beer. 

I remember looking over to see a Garter snake in the yard. This was not unusual. I also saw a toad there. Then I saw the Garter snake open it's mouth and eat the toad. This was absolutely awful and fascinating to my 5 year old self. I was unable to comprehend what I was seeing verbally and just sat there wide-eyed and pointing. After much "Well, I'll be's and Look at that sonofa's", we continued to scarf down what was left of our feast.

Fais Do-Do in Crowley, LA, 1938. Photo from Library of Congress by Lee Russell

Fais Do-Do in Crowley, LA, 1938.
Photo from Library of Congress by Lee Russell

By the end of the boil there is nothing left. The cat is allowed atop the table to lick the scraps we have amassed. Our bellies are full and I know once things get cleaned up, the preparation for a mad throw down of Bourré will begin. Bourré is a card game played by Acadians and was most popular at my family's gatherings. Then comes the real commotion, but that tradition is for another time. For now, my brother and I will endure the hoopla of my family and make way to "do-do"⁵.

I'm tempted to find a Schlitz and toast my Uncle Leroy (RIP) because it's highly unlikely I'm going to find some crawfish here.

7 Little things you may not know:

  1. In 1902, With over 1 million barrels sold, Schlitz becomes the largest brewery in the world.

  2. Schlitz introduced the now ubiquitous “Brown Bottle,” an innovation that inhibits light from spoiling beer as quickly, the first 16 ounce flat top can, and the now notable, "Tall Boy".

  3. In 1970, Unable to keep up with demand, the Company builds a 34-acre brewery in Winston-Salem, NC. With a 4.4 million barrel annual production capacity, it became the largest brewery in the world.

  4. We do not refer to Crawfish as Crayfish or Crawdads in LA...ever.

  5. "do-do" (doh-doh) is short for Fais do-do, which is a Cajun dance party, but the term is used to denote putting children to bed quickly and away from the noise, the folkore in full can be read here. My aunts used to say "Go do-do" when it was time for us to go to the back room and sleep. 

  6. Crawfish are farmed in the same fields as rice at times. When you drive out in the country sometimes you will encounter a number of escapees, claws up, ready to throw down on the roads. Louisiana accounts for 90% of crawfish in the nation. Before the 1980s they were sought after naturally, but due to high demand, farmers decided to use their rice fields interchangeably with crawfish harvesting.

  7. The slang word "Boo" in Cajun means Dear or Sweetheart. My parents called each other that all the time.