Bonnaroo crawfish boil: Go NOLA or go home

by Ryan Snyder

A pile of steaming mudbugs and an ample supply of beer are all you need for a fine crawfish boil. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

When it comes to a good crawfish boil, you can leave the conventional rules of dining etiquette in the drawer with the silverware. It’s a brazen feeding frenzy, a hands-on experience, and if it comes off as a little orgiastic, well, the comparison seems a little too obvious. It’s supposed to be a hot, sticky mess where everything is just laid out in front you for the taking and if you hang around long enough, you’re bound to get your hands on someone else’s sloppy seconds. There’s a lame joke about sucking the head to get the best flavor in there somewhere also, but the comparison is still completely apt without it. It’s a communal thing that’s best enjoyed with both friends and strangers; you probably need an invite to get to the good ones, and the right chef can turn a good time into an unforgettable culinary experience.

Backstage at the Bonnaroo Music Festival over the weekend, that chef was Chris “Shaggy” Davis, mainstay of New Orleans-style boils for more than 15 years with a preparation style that can only be described as incendiary. It’s not very New Orleans-y of anyone who enjoys the cities’ food and culture to nitpick about something being too spicy, but all it took to sweat like Rebecca Black on a Monday was to stick around for more than a couple “servings.” After gutting through 95-degree temperatures and carrying a case of low-grade heatstroke, the mess in front of you can feel like an act of arson on your palette. There must have been a bowling ball bag of cayenne pepper that went into each 60-quart pot, dumped out onto two rows of picnic tables every 30 minutes or so for two hours along with the new potatoes, corn on the cob and whole garlic cloves cooked with them. The punishment, however, was worth every bite. The little bugs themselves are the main attraction — the sweetness of the meat peeks above the blanket of spice. Just twist the tail and pull, and there’s a mouthful ready to be eaten.

As good as the crawfish are, the accoutrement in the pot can be their rival, and in this case, the whole garlic clove might have been the most flavorful item in the pile. The pungent cloves softened nicely in the pot and picked up the flavors of the crawfish, though in whole form they didn’t exacerbate the heat of the spices the way they would if they were crushed. The potatoes and corn, on the other hand, soaked it up like sponges.

You can tell who the vets are at a boil because of how they fiendishly twist the head off and suck out the cache of juices inside, pinching it a little to ensure they get every last drop. On the other hand, you can spot the rookies who flip their spent casings into a pile in the middle of the table rather than firing them down the line into the refuse bucket. They’re the same ones who leave the heads on, leaving others to have a go on their toss-aways.

There’s only one way to have a boil, of course, and that’s a New Orleans-style boil, as the backstage Bonnaroo boil host Marc “Buddha” Balsam explained. The stuff that comes from China has been scrubbed of the hepatopancreatic tissues that would otherwise spoil the meat over time, but also give the little bugs their best flavor. Anyone from New Orleans would tell you that the bayou hauls are the way to go, as he noted. It’s not surprising that both Davis and Balsam know YES! Weekly editor Brian Clarey — also seemingly common knowledge to anyone from New Orleans. “The skinny, loudmouthed bartender at Igor’s? Yeah I know him, he tried to get me to play djembe at his book reading,” Balsam said with a big grin at the mention.

wanna go?

Shaggy’s Boil, Inc. New Orleans, La