Cracking skulls and pinching tails

    It’s dusk on the Mississippi. We stop at a flashy restaurant on the eerily deserted New Orleans Riverwalk, just for drinks, my mom says. We sit on the patio a few steps away from the jazz band, seemingly ubiquitous in the city. We order Cokes, and when they arrive they reach from the table nearly to my mouth, no straws needed. It’s the type of place where they serve seafood by the bucketful, fresh out of the water.

    “Twisting tails and sucking heads,” my mom keeps saying, proud of her month by the bayou. She reaches into the bucket in the middle of the table and brandishes a crawfish at me. You can buy them practically by the ton here, roadside.

    You don’t catch crawfish. You harvest them, like corn or wheat. And in Louisiana, they harvest a lot. At one point, Louisiana harvested 90% of the world’s crawfish, and consumed 70% of it. The crawfish boil. The crawfish étouffée. The crawfish pie.

    She has spent the whole weekend telling us we have to try it. Since she’s been in Louisiana, I’ve gotten a slew of text message non-sequitors to the tune of “Crawfish boil – yum!”

    As much as I like a little culinary adventure, a crawfish reminds me of a baby. It looks so innocent, curled up so small. Cute, in a weird way. I shake my head. “Nope. Can’t do it.” It reminds me of the alien kid in District 9. “I can’t do it,” I repeat.

    “Here, I’ll show you how,” she says to my sister and I. She holds it up with her fingers, out where we can see it from across the table. “Twist off the tail,” she says with a sharp motion. Crack. “Suck the juice out of the head, like this.” There are things I don’t want to hear my mother say.

    She goes on. “Peel off the first ring.” She showcases how she rips the shell apart. I can’t help but think of peeling fingernails. “And pinch the meat out of the tail.” It cracks again, the way body parts aren’t supposed to.

    She offers another out of the mound of sea creatures. I wave it away again. She tosses it on my plate anyway, and I get to look at it, in its all its spindly alien legged glory, boiled red like the worst of my sunburns.

    I don’t want to touch it, in the same way I don’t like to kill spiders or pick up sand crabs. It’s something about all those legs — long, sharp spines that would click eerily across a table if they could still move. They’re unpredictable. I fully believe in zombie crawfish. This is a city famous for ghost tours and voodoo magic. If it happened anywhere, it would be here.

    I try sticking to the crab. But that, too, becomes problematic. The crack. The steady one-two crunch as the exoskeleton breaks, legs twisted out of sockets and pulled away from the body. Sliding the meat out from around the ligaments. The way the hard shell twists and snaps apart, like bones and knees and all sorts of things I never want to break.

    I’m a big fan of the meats. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. I understand the benefits of vegetarianism, and I gave it the old college try a few years back, until the smell of a pork tamale at Christmas broke me. I made it a month and a half, maybe two months. I come from a family where chicken is practically its own food group.

    But as that little spindly crawfish lies before me in a pool of butter, I just can’t do it. After a few minutes, I put down the crab, disgusted, and attempt to wipe my hands. No matter how many napkins I use, they still smell funky.

    I know myself better than to vow to become a vegetarian for real this time. Tomorrow I’ll be digging into chicken and sausage gumbo with as much enthusiasm as ever. But man, do I wish I could.


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