A few Saturdays back, Toon's Bar & Grill in Lakeview kicked off crawfish season with an all you can eat boil. With Mardi Gras just around the corner and celebrations in NOLA already in full swing, this marked a chance for those of us in frigid Chicago to get in on the action, too.
Tickets always sell out to these events, but it turns out that those in attendance were doubly lucky this time: thanks to uncharacteristically low temperatures in the Bayou this year, the crawfish yield has been smaller than most. I was lucky enough to snag a ticket and get a behind the scenes look at just what goes into one of these boils. And get really, really full on crawfish.
The boil begins with live crawfish overnighted from Louisiana. It doesn't get any fresher than watching your lunch walk the plank, does it?
The little guys are welcomed to the big city with three changes of water and a trip to an industrial water boiler, their color transforming from speckled brown and red to various shades of muddy.
When they're mostly cooked through, the crawfish are transferred to one of three "flavor pots" where they're finished with red potatoes, cobbed corn, sliced sausage, hot dog hunks,whole heads of garlic, halved lemons, quartered onions, and Louisiana Crawfish Company brand boil seasoning. All but the crawfish and maybe a hunk or two of potato and corn are filler to be ignored, but the seasoning deserves special mention for being spicy and complex without overpowering.
Everything, including the now vibrantly ruby red crawfish, is drained, transferred to large beer coolers, and brought inside by one of the affable staff members for serving.
For $30, you're presented with a wristband that's good for your choice of Abita Brewing Company Beer and all you can eat crawfish boil and "muffaletta" sandwiches (more on the quotation marks below).
New to the mudbug game, my first platter was admittedly intimidating. "Crawfish is like marriage," a friend of my father's once told me. "It's a lot of work for not much meat." I'm smart enough not to touch that with a 10 foot pole (I love you, honey!), but I will say that there is an art to eating these fellas.
Luckily, I sat next to two pros, one hailing from New Orleans, the other from Mississippi, and both longtime attendees at Toon's various boils. Eating crawfish, I learned, is all about compartmentalizing: you yank the Head from the Tail and address them separately. First, look down the barrel of the neck, pucker up, and suck. You'll be rewarded with a briny, spicy liquid that's apparently a delicacy at these functions. It's really good, as long as you don't think about it much. Second, slide your fingernail along the spine of the tail, snap through the eggshell brittle shell, devein as you're able, and enjoy this tiny little lobster tail. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and repeat until you're full. It takes a while, but that's why you have access to beer, too.
And trayfuls of "Muffaletta" Sandwiches. These aren't your Central Grocery wedges, and judging by the look of them, I had pretty low expectations. Man, was I surprised. The sharp provolone and olive salad (despite being chock full of canned black ones) worked in tandem to create a rich, punchy sandwich, righting the wrongs of the ham-heavy, packaged deli meat and so-so hoagie bread. Maybe it was how much they reminded me of the tailgate sandwiches of my youth, but I devoted way more stomach space to these than I intended.
Looking around at the bright bead be-necked patrons filling the room, it was clear that these people were in it for the long haul: platter after platter, table after table. I was not one of those people. One hour in and all by my lonesome, I was bored with crawfish surgery. I washed the ocean from my hands and quietly slipped out the door, not knowing if I'd ever make the trip back. A few days later, though, with the temperature back down in familiar single digits, I'm already longing for another taste of a coast I've never known. I'll be back—and next time, with friends.