Toasting quarantine’s end with Mawa’s crawfish
The familiar steam and the sound of a rolling boil and the sting of Tony Chachere’s spices were in the air, along with the antsy-giddy anticipation of a batch nearly finished. It was a proper crawfish boil, though far from the ponds and paddies of Louisiana.
It was the last weekend of Chef Mawa McQueen’s third annual boil at Mawa’s Kitchen in the Aspen Business Center. McQueen gets the mudbugs shipped here live in water from Louisiana, boils in the traditional style with spices, potatoes, corn on the cob and andouille sausage (she also adds shrimp to her boil) and serves them up by the pound to grateful high country diners for whom a fresh crawfish meal is normally a plane flight away.
For 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Mawa’s boil was served entirely takeout style — no grand gathering on the porch of the restaurant, of course. She’s been on the forefront of adapting through the COVID-19 crisis through takeout and her festive, well-produced “Cooking with the Queen” virtual cooking class series. The afternoon I picked up my crawdad parcel, McQueen and her masked culinary team were monitoring the batch and I was one of four men waiting in the parking lot — all of us former Louisianans, all eager to taste this most comforting of comfort foods after a long slantwise spring of global crisis.
Breaking open a crawfish cracks open a memory trove for me, summoning countless spring afternoons in New Orleans tearing through a picnic table pile of red shellfish and corn with college friends, on the Mississippi River levee at Audubon Park, on the bar patio across Magazine Street from the Big Fisherman seafood market, in the grass at JazzFest, on sidewalks and courtyards and at wedding receptions and the Tulane University quad celebrating graduation.
It’s the most social of foods, precious because of its finite spring season, best enjoyed outdoors with friends and with at least one person who has never had a crawfish before. Because teaching how to peal the tail and suck the head is part of the fun.
This time around, our crawfish newbie was my 2-year-old daughter, who exclaimed “Spicy! Yummo!” in as sure a sign of our genetic link as I’ve found. She also asked, of course, “Why do you suck the head?” To which I didn’t really have an answer — there’s no meat in there, just pure flavor from the boil — other than to say it’s what you do when you eat crawfish and because it tastes good. That was good enough for her.
It was just me, her and my wife around the table at home for this meal, as it had been for every meal for 11 weeks under stay-home orders. Throughout the long quarantine period we treated ourselves to takeout every Saturday night, a small weekly treat that felt like an extravagance given the circumstances. Meatloaf and mac ’n’ cheese from Jimmy’s, bibmibop from Bamboo Bear, rotisserie chicken from Meat and Cheese, a Bangkok Happy Bowl, dumplings from Bok Choy, a Mother’s Day feast from White House Tavern … this was our once-a-week dose of joy.
Mawa’s crawfish boil came at the end of it and the beginning of the “safer-at-home” period, which meant I’d be going back to my office at The Aspen Times and my daughter would return to preschool at the Early Learning Center. After two-and-a-half months of two working parents and a 2-year-old sharing a two-bedroom condo for 24 hours a day, this small step toward normalcy and safety felt like reason to celebrate.
I put The Meters on the stereo, made a batch of red beans and rice with cornbread to complement the crawfish and we feasted. We were far from New Orleans and remain far from normal times, but this crawfish boil was another worth remembering.
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