The Last Crawfish Boil

I grew up in Houston in the 1990s, when the city still had the Oilers football team and the glow of back-to-back NBA Championship titles. Then as now, Houston was the nation’s energy capital. Every year in early May, more than 50,000 conventioneers descended on the Astrodome for the Offshore Technology Conference, the largest oil and gas trade show in the world.

One of those convention-goers was my father, a Taiwanese-turned-Texan mechanical engineer with a deep knowledge of the offshore drilling industry and a penchant for colorful stories. Dad had a weakness for steak, barbecue, and free food. During that first week in May, at any dinner hosted by any energy company anywhere, Dad would show up. And for the crawfish boils that happened the Sunday before the official conference kickoff, Dad dragged all of us along.

He’d barge into the TV room, interrupt my sister’s Saved by the Bell marathon and whatever R.L. Stine I happened to be reading, and bark orders in a Chinese-Southern accent. “Come on! Let’s go have some crawfish for dinner! The season is only once a year.”

Dad was right. Wild crawfish season begins in March and ends in May—not that any of us besides him actually cared. Protests made no difference. He’d pack Mom, my sister, and me into the car and drive to Stafford or a ranch near Brazos Bend, someplace boring, on the outskirts of Greater Houston.

The year I was finishing fifth grade, Dad’s company had just completed repairs on a semisubmersible in the Port of Galveston. They rented the dock to show off, celebrating with what promised to be a large and very rowdy crawfish boil.

As our car approached, I saw the white tent. I stepped out of the car, half asleep in the heat, unfurling my limbs. As zydeco blared, petroleum engineers lined up to grab bottles of Bud from the coolers. Under the tent, row after row of plastic-covered folding tables were begging to be dirtied with mud bugs. And around the tent’s perimeter, long gray tubs full of submerged specimens, live and wriggling. A cloud of steam showed where a batch of crawfish was already meeting its end in the boiler. The smell of garlic and sweet paprika mingled with the general marine funk.

There’s a rhythm to eating crawfish: a grasp here, a twist there, and a tug at the end. My fingers couldn’t get it right. Bits of broken shell cut the pads of my thumbs as I tried to pry off appendages and dig into, rather than pull out, the meat. Impatient and hungry, I filled up on corn and potatoes, waiting for my parents to take pity and peel some for me.

After dinner, we stayed to tour the rig, climbing the eight flights of stairs all the way to the upper deck. As we said our goodbyes and prepared for the long drive back, one of the guys manning the crawfish station called out to us. “Hey, we’ve still got a handful of these guys left.” He told us to take some home. “Just put 'em in some fresh water and they’ll last a few days.” That’s how we wound up with four big, healthy-looking live crawfish in a grocery bag, gently scratching at the brown paper.

Once home, my sister and I watched our new crawfish family walk backward on the kitchen floor, observing how they flinched when we touched their antennae with the end of a chopstick. When it was time for bed, we put them in a deep, long-handled pot filled with fresh water. We covered it halfway and left them in the sink. They seemed to settle down, all except one, the biggest and meanest of the bunch. He kept trying to push his way out of the pot.

Next morning I asked Mom if we were going to have them for dinner. “Not a chance,” she said. “Don’t you know a crawfish is only 15 percent meat?”

When we got home from school we found Bubba, our tabby, with green eyes blazing, squaring off with the alpha crawfish, 20 feet from the sink on the living room carpet. Later that evening I heard a yelp: Mom had walked into the bathroom to put away some towels and found another one standing upright, its red exoskeleton looking angry against the pale pink tile. “We need to close the lid on the pot,” she said. We did.

The following day after dance class I arrived home to the smell of rotten seafood, and the ammonia stench of decomposing protein as my sister and I lifted the lid off our crawfish family’s pot. All four critters were accounted for, but their lifeless bodies were floating in the murky water.

Did they suffocate or starve? I wondered, shuddering, as I held my nose with two fingers. Mom drained the water, threw the carcasses in a plastic bag, and ordered my father to take out the trash. “This is it,” she declared. “No more crawfish boils.”

She was right—we never again attended one as a family. Even Dad missed next year’s—he didn’t feel like making the long drive with no one in the backseat.

It’s been a long road back from the memory of those limp, decomposing little bodies. I RSVP'd yes to lunch at a food festival a few years ago, only to find out it was going to be an all-crawfish menu, spread over six courses. I decided to part with old memories and succumb to the sweet, muddy-tasting flesh. I did just fine.

May marked my parents’ first return to a crawfish boil in almost 15 years. It was nicer than they remembered—there were fancy vegetables, mushrooms and asparagus. Before they left, my father accepted a supermarket-sized bag of live creatures to take home. My parents boiled them up first thing, before the car’s engine even had a chance to cool.

Family photos from Susannah Chen; crawfish photo by Flickr member Mike Burton under Creative Commons

Susannah Chen is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. When she's not cooking or writing, she's on the hunt to find the world's best chilaquiles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.