When I was 18, I circumnavigated the country by train. I rode the rails from New Orleans to Chicago to Seattle to Los Angeles. I summited a mountain, hung out with some orca whales in the San Juan Straits and nearly got stranded in the middle of the Texas desert. It was a touchstone experience for me — the sort of trip that expands your view of the world and teaches you to trust your place in it. Still, after a month, I was ready for home. I ended the trip right back where I started — in the Big Easy, hunched over a bowl of red beans and rice in a dusty French Quarter diner. I spooned mound after mound of the spicy stuff into my mouth. My lips stung for hours, but it tasted like home.
Food is powerful. No matter how far you stray, the taste of mom’s cornbread or that baked lasagna from your youth can connect you with better times. In this part of the country, my part of the country, probably few culinary traditions are as deeply entwined with concepts of family and home as the crawfish boil. In other regions, folks have different names for these tiny, succulent crustaceans, but, along the Gulf Coast, I’ve found that names don’t much matter. Where others say “crayfish,” “crawdad,” or even “mudbug,” we just say, “Pass the paper towels.”
In May, Pensacola will play host to one of the region’s largest boils at the annual Pensacola Crawfish Festival — held April 29 to May 1 in downtown’s William Bartram Park. The three-day event will feature live music, a 10K run and about 16,000 pounds of crawfish. We’ll have crawfish poboys, crawfish jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, crawfish boudin, crawfish pie and — yes — even red beans and rice with crawfish. Besides good vittles, the event will include a stellar lineup of Cajun-tinged musical performances, children’s activities (including the ever-popular, always-hilarious crawfish races) and an authentic second line parade with New Orleans’ Cha Wa Mardi Gras Indians. For the uninitiated, the second line is a Big Easy tradition involving a brass band, jubilant dancing and outrageously costumed performers. It’s a throwback to New Orleans jazz funerals, when the mourners would join in the procession, forming a “second line” behind the marching band.
I’ve never been to a jazz funeral, and I don’t know how my dancing would fare in a second line parade, but I do know one thing: With so much good food to go around, I’ll definitely be in line for seconds. I hope to see you there, too. For more information about the festival, click here.