Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Crawfish Boil 101

Posted by Benson

For those of ya'll who have never been to a crawfish boil, you're probably curious about exactly what it is.  Before last year's crawfish boil I wrote a post about what a crawfish boil is and described its significance in the culture of south Louisiana.  You can check that out here.

Crawfish boils are important social events within the fabric of southern Louisiana culture.  A crawfish boil is a time for people to come together to appreciate all of the best things in our lives.  It is not just about making food and spending time together.  It is a shared celebration of home and culture.

While crawfish can be found all over the world to one degree or another, the way in which they naturally flourish in the landscape of south Louisiana is somewhat peculiar.  Because of this, in Louisiana, the consumption of freshly boiled crawfish in such large quantities has a very strong relationship to place.  Louisianians produce the vast majority of US crawfish and we actually eat almost all of it ourselves.  Even though Louisiana accounts for more than 90 percent of total US crawfish production, an estimated three quarters of Louisiana crawfish are produced for local consumption!

Nobody eats crawfish like we do in south Louisiana, but the way that we experience crawfish is also self-perpetuating.  Today, most of the crawfish in Louisiana is produced through aquaculture.  The mudbug thrives naturally in the Atchafalya basin, and this tasty crustacean was relished by each successive wave of the basin's human residents.  Even so, the crawfish long had a stigma in modern Louisiana culture.  It was, much like oysters, strongly associated with the diet of Cajuns, and was viewed as a low class food eaten by the rural poor.  But as Louisianians began to appreciate the story of their collective experience, Cajun culture became less and less stigmatized, and the crawfish along with it.

Today, the crawfish has grown into a symbol of Louisiana's cultural roots, and the delicious, jovial excess of a crawfish boil help to connect us with a unique past and allow us to participate in an identity based on recognition of our shared experience.  The Atchafalya basin and the port of New Orleans have always brought together a rich diversity of residents, and acknowledging shared experience has long been a vital part of successfully navigating such a varied social landscape.  The humble crawfish acts as a catalyst for this process because of its democratizing impact.

In southern Louisiana today, everyone eats crawfish.  Crawfish are plentiful, cheap, and make extremely good eating.  The crawfish has grown above social distinctions such as class, race, and gender.  It carries virtually no social stigma to locals and is a food that is accessible to almost anyone.  The consumption of crawfish, especially in the context of a crawfish boil, therefore forges commonality of experience that cuts across lines of difference.

Although the Louisiana style crawfish boil is relatively unique, the purpose it serves is not, nor should it be.  The Atchafalya basin and the port of New Orleans are a microcosm of what defines our country.  The Unites States is defined in many ways by its diversity.  It is a tapestry woven of many different strands, ideally focused on the singular goal of liberty.  Diversity is a source of great strength when otherwise disparate peoples are united in a common purpose, but liberty on its own is an all too nebulous idea.

In his recently published book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, author Charles Murray argues that what he identifies as an alarming rate of increasing class division is rooted in a lack of common experience between people from different economic backgrounds.  He argues that cultural differences have become so deeply ingrained that in addition to having different views on education, childcare, etc., people from different classes often experience popular culture in radically different ways.  They don't watch the same movies, listen to the same music, or even eat the same type of food.

Recognition of shared experience is vital to the success of our republican experiment.  Common experience helps to breed unity while simultaneously celebrating diversity.  It is how we are able to form and perpetuate a society.  But as Charles Murray has argued, our nation is drifting apart into increasingly insular communities.  In southern Louisiana, the crawfish boil helps to focus our attention on the commonalities of our experiences, rather than the differences.  It reminds us to focus on the ways in which we are connected, and if you take the time to look, you'll find that they are manifold.

Not only are we all heirs to a common history of North American experience, but we are connected by a complex interplay of environment and culture.  We Louisianians may eat three quarters of our crawfish, but they flourish in an alluvial plain formed from a river system that drains more than forty percent of North America.  They are as much a part of the rest of the country as New Orleans is.  And it is in this spirit that we extend to all of our friends the opportunity to come to New Orleans and share some of our experiences.  We invite everyone to spare a moment and think about what we all have in common, regardless of how different we may seem on the surface.

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