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Food Porn Friday: The mystical art of crawfish kung-fu

"We've been waiting for you, sir."

"We've been waiting for you, sir."

Last week, I delved into my nostalgia well and told a tale of oysters and my late grandfather.  Well, apparently, when you mine those caverns, you tend to find more than what you might have expected.  After considering my personal history of raw oysters, I was naturally led to think about another food I grew up with, another one without which, I'm certain, life would scarcely be worth living.

I'm talking, of course, about crawfish.

In my many years as a crawfish lover, I estimate that I'm personally responsible for a small scale crustacean holocaust.  When I gaze on the hundreds (thousands?  It might be just that many by now) of discarded crawfish heads, legs, pincers and empty tails at the end of a long summertime boil, I am reminded of the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, who, upon seeing his creation quoted the Bhagavad Gita, saying, "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."   Live crawfish take one look at my hungry, smiling face, and know that the end is nigh.  That is how much I love crawfish, and though my karma might suffer for it, I have no shame in saying so.

I've always been fond of introducing the joys of the mudbug berl to Yankee neophytes.  It's cute, the way they take a small plate of hot crawfish and pick at them tentatively, instead of waiting at the crawfish table like an Olympic sprinter in his blocks, coiled and ready to pounce on the next batch of steaming crawfish as soon as they spill out onto the table.  I enjoy taking them under my wing and teaching them the various methods of proper crawfish peeling, beginning with the head-pull-and-suck, then the tail-peel-and-pinch.  Once they master that, I instruct them, sensei-like, in the mysterious two-handed black belt technique, in which one is able to separate the head, suck it dry, then remove a full, meaty tail out of its shell using only one's teeth, sans peeling.  A true crawfish ninja can shell, suck and devour a whole crawfish in a matter of a few short seconds.

As I've noted of oysters, crawfish are not fussy food, nor one of any kind of moderation.  They are meant to be enjoyed in what the Coneheads called "mass quantities."  Or, as I like to say, "The only way to know when you've had enough boiled crawfish is when there are no more boiled crawfish."

I wasn't always the Bruce Lee of crawfish-eating kung-fu.  (Maybe that's overstepping it a little.  I'm probably more of a crawfish Jean-Claude Van Damme.)  I didn't realize how much I had to learn about the mystic art and profound science of mudbug mastery until I was a junior in high school, when I was playing on the varsity baseball team.  One day we were called on to play an away game in Port Sulphur, La., deep into the bayous south of New Orleans and a hearty drive away from home.  We got to leave school at noon, which was nice, however about halfway there, the heavens split and came down on us hard, forcing us to cancel the game, turn around and start driving home.

Our coach wasn't going to drive us all the way out into swamp country for nothing.  "Y'all hungry?" he asked, and we said yes, because we were high school athletes with the metabolism of your average hummingbird on amphetamines, so we were constantly hungry.  "Good," he said, "I know a decent place for crawfish not far from here."

When we arrived at the seafood shack in God Knows Where, Louisiana, I wasn't quite prepared for what I was about to witness.  As the team made our way through the mountain of boiled crawfish at a measured pace, Coach Dozier, seated at the head of the long table like an Emperor presiding over his court, shelled and ate the crustaceans in front of him at a velocity I could scarcely comprehend.  His movements were fast, but deliberate, with the kind of ease and skill only acquired after years of monastic study and practice.  It was a quick "one-two-three" maneuver: pull off the head, slurp the juices, pluck the tail meat.  Tick tick tick, like a metronome.  Then repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat. Repeat.

Malcolm Gladwell once posited that it takes 10,000 hours in the pursuit of any activity in order to achieve genuine mastery.  My guess is that Coach Dozier had at least double that.  Watching him work his way through pile after pile of crawfish was an eye-opener and a game-changer, all in one muggy afternoon somewhere off of highway 23.  When I returned to school just in time to catch the end of algebra class, my fingers numb with spice and my T-shirt graffitied with splashes of pungent crawfish guts (much to the revulsion of my classmates), I knew I had so much left to learn.

I might not yet have attained the zen-like perfection in which my baseball coach devoured crawfish, but I'm certainly no hack.  There are skills in these fingers.  Perhaps one day, with continued study and a grey Fu Manchu mustache reaching to my belt, I will reach that level.  Until then, all that's left to do is to practice.

Practice, practice, practice.

Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore and a blog by the same name, has written for Gourmet, Edible Brooklyn, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Catch his weekly food column for The Advocate here.


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.