The Anatomy of a Southern-style Crawfish Boil

EDM June 2014

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
June / July 2014

For many Southerners, the arrival of spring is not signified by warmer temperatures or buds on the trees. It’s a heaping, steaming pile of crawfish spread out across a newspaper, the shells that tell-tale fire engine red hue and still dripping with crab boil.

After the long, dreary months of winter finally come to an end, what better way to celebrate spring than with a crawfish boil surrounded by 100 or so of your closest friends? It’s a time honored tradition that Mississippians have enjoyed for generations. The table manners your mother spent so much time coaching you on as a child don’t apply here. Seating is optional, but several rolls of paper towels nearby are required. Most people belly up to the table and begin pinching tails. If you’re a tried and true boiled crawfish aficionado, you’ll likely suck the head before casting the empty carcass aside and reaching for another.

For almost 15 years, the home of Edward and Cleta Ellington of Jackson has been the setting of such an event. It began in 1998 as a way for the Ellington children, who all attended college out-of-state, to get together with friends during Easter break.  Fifteen years later, it would grow into a neighborhood block party attended by nearly 200 people. Two traditions have always remained the same: crawfish are always served and it’s always held on the Saturday before Easter.

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“Holy Saturday,” Cleta Ellington calls it.

“All of us who raised children in our neighborhood were very close,” she goes on to explain. “The kids always considered everybody’s house their own. It became a wonderful opportunity for all the kids to come with their parents and visit.”

Ellington describes the boil as multi-generational. Her children, who are now in their 30’s, have children of their own. A crowd that was once predominantly college kids and young professionals has morphed to encomapss young families. Two years ago the Ellingtons passed the torch on to the next generation, handing the responsibility over to Barry and Mary Margaret White.

As with most crawfish boils, there is no set agenda. Word of mouth dictates that the food is usually ready by three o’clock and if you want crawfish, you’d better get there early. Turn onto the White’s street located in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood, and it’s apparent there is a shindig going on. Cars begin to line the street on either side and people are seen carrying everything from coolers full of beer to babies and strollers.

Friendly conversation mixes with the sound of a propane flame as a huge stainless steel pot full of water and spices comes to a boil for the next batch. The ratio of water and spices is important. You want them spicy and if they’re not, someone will let you know. There the clinking of a lid as the designated “cook” checks the pot and stirs its contents with a large paddle to see if the crawfish are “done.” Periodically, two men will hoist a cooler towards the large folding table set up in the middle of the White’s driveway and dump a load of cooked crawfish, corn on the cob, and red potatoes in the middle of the table. Hungry party-goers step up to eat and if you want a spot at the table, be prepared to push a few folks out of the way.

If for some reason crawfish just aren’t your thing, there are chicken wings, grilled boudin sausage, and an entire spread of chips, dips, appetizers, and snacks. One thing is for sure, you won’t go hungry at a crawfish boil.

As the crawfish begins to wind down, there’s talk of oysters being driven in from New Orleans. Red potatoes and corn give way to saltines and hot sauce as a few lucky volunteers are tasked with donning gloves, wielding knives, and shucking the oysters, which are snapped up just as quickly as they can lay one down.

If it rains on crawfish boil day, most people will find a way for the party to go on. “Last year on Easter, the weather was terrible,” says Mary Margaret White, as she recalls their first year hosting the Holy Saturday boil. “It rained, but people still came. Everyone just huddled under the carport.”

Even though Ellington and her husband aren’t hosting Holy Saturday anymore, she looks back on those years fondly. “I feel so lucky that we’ve gotten to do it and were able to keep it up. I’ll never forget looking out across my yard one year and seeing mamas sitting on quilts with their babies and bigger kids chasing each other across the yard.”

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