This story of abundance begins two hours away, at a freshwater reservoir in north-central Utah, where, on a summer night, crayfish emerge from sandy soil and are easily caught between a net and a bright flashlight. Two hunting methods prevail. Shine a light in shallow waters where crayfish dwell and either: position a net behind them to catch them as their abdominal muscles (i.e. the delicious “tails” we seek to eat) furiously backpedal, or position yourself to pluck them by hand, one by one, writhing, in tact, as they slowly maneuver forward. Toss them quickly into ice coolers waiting nearby.
Genetic cousins to insects, crayfish (also known as crawfish or crawdads) are crustaceans that have proliferated as a species for millions of years. Sturdy exoskeletons and an instinctual affinity for the dark have encouraged their success. To their detriment, their sexy abdomens: humanity’s temptation.
In the intervening hours after catching crayfish, and prior to boiling the crayfish in restaurant-sized pots situated on heat sources of your choosing, encourage the little bugs to purge the mud and flatworms from their digestive tracts by submerging them in a series of cleansing salt-and-ice-water baths, each of which should grow successively less murky as the purging progresses. Crayfish, like other crustaceans, have evolved to self-metabolize at death; their digestive enzymes quickly begin breaking down the very muscle tissue prized by food enthusiasts, so be sure to keep them very cold and cook them quickly.
At cooking time, aim for maximum output and minimal clean-up. Our hosts, Kurt and Maggi, set out vinyl tablecloths topped with newspaper and mason jars filled with fresh flowers (the former for practical disposal, the latter for aesthetic pleasure). Maggi and Kurt invited all guests to contribute their lot of corn-on-the-cobs, red potatoes, sausages, and butter. Kurt graciously incorporated all of our ingredients into a crayfish boil, extending the haul – with generous sprinklings of Old Bay – to a lavish backyard feast. Maggi adorned each table with bowls of hot, melted butter for dipping.
The art of eating involves tactile education, which many guests received together, under Kurt and Maggi’s tutelage. With their guidance we learned to twist and snap the abdomens away from the upper bodies, and to grasp the middle tail fins in order to pull out the digestive tracts cleanly. (These are filled, mostly, with sandy debris.) Once accomplished, we smashed the protective abdominal shells in order to harvest the silken meat. Crunchy orange confetti, small enough to be overlooked, signify females and their roe. That weird green stuff under the spindly legs? Probably related to the tomalley in lobsters, crayfish’s bigger, saltwater relative: sometimes used as a flavorant, but deleterious to leave in tact, for its self-destructive tendencies. Should we eat the claws or the heads, as we’d seen on television? Yes, we could, crunching their shells in our teeth – we found them briny, but less abundant than the abdomens, which yielded fleshy stores about the same size as small-to-medium shrimp.
Seafood boils have roots in the coastal regions of the southern United States, but they vary in history, geography, and name: clam bakes, shrimp boils, low country boils, etc. Boils flourish in ice coolers (excellent insulators for temperature extremes); in cast iron pots or Dutch ovens; on the stove; on the grill; and in any place the human initiative seeks to celebrate the bounty provided by the natural world. For us, it was central Utah on a random July night with gas stoves in a friend’s backyard.
James Beard wrote fondly of the crayfish boils of his Oregon youth. “If you can find or order crayfish in your locality,” he wrote, “they are something to hail with joy and treat with reverence.” He cooked his in court bouillon; we cooked ours in water and Old Bay, but I like to think that, over two nights and in our very small scale, we joined Beard in spirit, hailing in joy over a delicious feast.
© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014