Springtime Rituals in the Land of the White Pickup Trucks

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I love my first year in a new place. I’ve lived so many places, and each place has its own set of rituals that drive its calendar. For instance, the Southwest Michigan area will kick off it’s Springtime festivities in May with the Blossomtime Festival. The Knoxville Area has the Dogwood Festival with its auto-trails around town highlighting well-groomed yards with dogwoods and red buds in full bloom. Northwest Indiana had a European Market that kicked off in May with all kinds of weekend exhibitors. The State Parks and National Lakeshore opened, and all of the little towns around Lake Michigan hosted events almost every weekend. After being in any of those places a few years, I started to mark the seasons by the festivals and the crops. In April, Michigan has fresh asparagus. It grows wild, so it’s all over the place. The rest of the country pays a pretty penny for the buttery stalks, but you can drive by any old house and pay $1 a pound at a self-serv stand in St. Joe … or Three Oaks … or Buchanan. The first year I was there I ate asparagus almost every day. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The blueberry and cherry seasons were milestones, too. Most people don’t know that Southwest Michigan is the second largest fruit-growing area in the country next to California. I awaited each season with unbridled gluttony.

I’m finding Louisiana has its own rhythm for the spring. We thaw out quicker than most of the country, so by the time our azaleas are gone, the rest of the country is just greening up. I didn’t remember that crawfish had a “season”. Two – three weeks ago I started seeing signs that proclaimed Boiled Crawfish popping up. My friend Sha called and asked if I wanted to go eat boiled crawfish one night last week. I was waiting for an invitation because I see it as a social event not just a yummy treat. So we went to Sammy’s for crawfish. I thought we’d run in and eat and leave. No…. this was an event. They told us it would be an hour wait, and I thought for sure we’d leave. Not hardly….. The restaurant was packed, and we stood around with two men from her work and waited to take our seat in the house. They brought out our platters, and we ate and ate, spending the time catching up on our lives and talking about how good they were.

“These aren’t spicy enough.”

“The ones on the inside are still hot.”

“These claws are really big.”

“The ones I had the other night were not as good as these.”

“This second batch is much better than the first. They are spiced just right.”

I’ve often wondered how you spice them just right. It seems to be a moving target, and every person has different tastes, too. These comments are ones I’ve heard over and over the last few weeks. I overhear people in the office proclaiming they had some, “but they were really small.” Someone on Facebook had some that “didn’t have enough salt, but that’s just me.” Those red crustaceans, I’m seeing, are the reason to celebrate in the spring. We not only celebrate in the eating, but we celebrate when someone else is eating by asking them to tell us about it. A good time is had by all … vicariously or in person.

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It’s strawberry season, too, in the Land of the White Pick-up Trucks. Everywhere I’ve been in the last couple of weeks, I see trays of the beautiful red berries laying out. They, like the crawfish, fluctuate in price according to the demand, the time in the season and their size. My friend Gretchen and I checked some out in Hammond yesterday. “They aren’t very big,” she said. She speculated that the big ones were probably being sold at the festival in Ponchatoula this weekend. We looked for strawberry pie. I settled for buying a half flat and made strawberry shortcake with whipped cream when I got home. I used those tea cakes that I purchased at the Farmer’s Market. It was delicious. I’d say that “they were small, but they were still juicy.” I’ve heard people say that the strawberries … and the crawfish… aren’t as good this year .. or as plentiful .. or as big … because of the winter we had. I haven’t been disappointed yet on any front. So, if this is not good, I can’t wait until it gets good!

When I was in the bar waiting on our crawfish, someone in our party asked the waitress if they had char-grilled crabs. No… she said they would start getting crabs right around the time the crawfish ran out. I began making a mental note to get over there for char-grilled crabs for that season…. some time in May. I walked out on the levee yesterday evening with my dog, and she had her first taste of crawfish. I saw her chewing on something, and I could see the red claw hanging out of her mouth while she chomped down on it. It seems she will fit right in here for crawfish season. I could smell crawfish wafting on the breeze while the barges and the tugboats pushed their way upriver. I looked around, and there were two or three groups of people huddled around pieces of cardboard piled high with crawfish. They took their time watching the sunset and peeling the tiny tails. I basked in the ritual here … this ritual of eating crawfish. It is not just the arrival of a good food, but it’s the arrival of spring.

A friend told me that they are pricier before Easter because of Lenten fasting on Fridays. It gives people something good to eat that’s not classified as meat. So, along with the celebration of Easter, there are crawfish and strawberries to gather around. My family will be gathering Easter weekend to stuff crawfish heads with stuffing to put into crawfish bisque. This is an annual ritual passed down through generations of Cajuns in my brother-in-law’s family. When I drove up to my house Saturday night, my new neighbors’ yard was full of cars, and I could smell the spicy crawfish aroma before I saw them gathered around a table set up in the driveway. I wondered how many gatherings there were like this in town… pricey or not… big or small … spicy or bland. These orangey-red-clawed bottom-dwellers boiled in a pot of spicy water were a signpost on the calendar that said Welcome Spring. It’s crawfish season, y’all. Won’t you come sit for a spell and peel some tails?

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