Missing out…

This past week I have felt terrible. Due to the gorgeous springtime weather, my allergies kicked into high gear and had me wheezing like…well…a person with asthma triggered by severe allergies. The only way to avoid an expensive trip to the emergency room that my finances couldn’t possibly withstand, I had to take it easy the past few days, stay inside to avoid pollen and other irritants, and basically sit on my butt and relax. You see, my dad taught me that you can beat any asthma attack by simply remaining calm. The more worked up you got, the more stressed out you became about breathing through a pinhole, only made the attack worse.

Anyhow, this state of extreme mellowness I had to maintain also meant that I was missing out on all kinds of events that were happening this weekend…big time.

I could have been “porking out” in City Park at Hogs for the Cause, eating my way through a forest of culinary bliss at Taste of the Town in Lafreniere Park, screaming my lungs out at the Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest in Jackson Square for the Tennessee Williams Festival or tasting from the annual Roadfood Festival booths lining Royal Street. Probably worst of all, I missed out on an epic crawfish boil that took place at Casey & Brandon’s house on the Westbank. They’re quite possibly the coolest couple on earth and the first people I met in New Orleans who introduced me to wonders of a fantastic crawfish boil.

Sad and mopey, I confined myself to the bedroom and read most of the time. On Saturday, my sweet, sweet man not only bought me a dozen sunset colored roses, he also acquired a big, fat bag of boiled crawfish and fixin’s from Big Fisherman on Magazine Street.

As we sucked the heads and pinched the tails, I couldn’t help smiling at John and tapping my foot to the Bob Marley station we set on Pandora. Just being with the love of my life and enjoying a great meal I realized, perhaps I hadn’t missed out on all that much…after all, there’s always next weekend!

The crawfish boil chronicles: Heather Goodwin

Photo by Andreas Koch

Due to my own relative physical “inactivity”, it never fails to amaze me when someone I know displays an overwhelming passion for a particular sport. I’m speaking here of individuals who are so enamored, that they take it upon themselves and their busy schedules to incorporate participating in what is essentially…just a game.

A few weeks ago, I met with a friend of mine who has done just that. Heather Goodwin, a.k.a. Vieux Careen of the Big Easy Roller Girls invited me into her Algiers home just across the Mississippi River in an effort to continue my research of the ubiquitous crawfish boil.
Born in Columbia, Maryland; Heather is still local to me considering she moved to Baton Rouge at six months old and then into New Orleans when she was eight-years-old. Heather’s parents divorced when she was only five and she left with her mother, Dolores, and her brother Charles to live in a one bedroom apartment off of Severn Avenue in Metairie.
When Heather speaks of her mom, a light glints in her eyes and she sits up straighter, obviously proud of her mother’s accomplishments. Apparently, right after the divorce, Dolores went back to school at Louisiana State University (her ex-husband agreed to pay for college) to major in Physical Therapy. Heather describes the short time in the Metairie apartment as “a summer that felt like an eternity,” but Heather’s mom went on to became one of the premier physical therapists in the state of Louisiana. “My mom is an amazing, strong and independent woman.” Heather says with pride.
Dolores remarried about a year after her divorce to a man named Ike Hardee and moved, with her two children, into a three bedroom trailer in Westwego. “It was so crazy,” Heather explains, “I was living with my mom, stepfather, brother Charles, stepsister Sherri and stepbrother Joe.”
In the 5th grade, Heather’s new family moved into Algiers, the city she has never left. She attended Rosenwald Middle School in the “cutoff in the hood” where she learned how to “curse, smoke cigarettes and skip school.” Obviously, school was not one of her passions. In fact, her hatred of school was a strong factor in keeping her virginity intact until she graduated. “My mother who is very religious, told me that girls who got pregnant didn’t graduate from high school. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from getting out of there!” she exclaimed.
Likely due to her parents’ strictness, Heather rebelled and moved out of the house only three months before she graduated when she was 17-years-old. For only a year, she lived in the Parc Fontaine apartment complex with her roommate, a “crazy” guy named Jason Huffman. “He thought he was either my father or my husband…neither of which were true. I was young and stupid and naive, and as I look back on it now, I think he was madly in love with me.” A feeling which was obviously not mutual. It only lasted about a year before she moved out. 
Photo by Andreas Koch
Throughout her life, Heather has been employed in the service industry as a waitress, bartender and hostess..working at restaurants like Steak & Ale (ain’t dere no more) and the Dry Dock Cafe. But, it seems she enjoyed bartending the most, especially at The Old Point Bar where she stayed for six years.  
At 22, Heather gave birth to her son Kyle and decided that bartending and its risks (she was held up twice at gunpoint) wasn’t conducive to raising a son. She decided to go back to school to get a degree in Graphic Design from the Southeast College of Technology. 
In 2004, she started what could have been a successful graphic design company with her friend Rachel. Unfortunately, they were working out of a house in Lakeview and lost everything (almost $50,000 in computer equipment and software) under 15 feet of water when Katrina hit and the levees failed in 2005.
Heather’s latest obsession began only a year ago when she decided to try out for the Big Easy Roller Girls. After months of practicing and trying out…Heather made it onto the team and is now part of Crescent Wenches playing as Vieux Careen and attending practice 2-3 times a week to retain “active” status. 
“I am trying to find a happy medium between derby and life, because derby takes over very easily.” she explains. Heather makes an effort to talk about other things besides derby, but it has become such a big part of what she had become, that is is a difficult endeavor. “When I start not liking it, we’ll have a bout and it puts everything back into perspective. I love it!”
When I asked her what derby veterans on the team she would like to emulate, Heather replied “All of them?” and laughed. “I would like to have Lacy’s mobility and then Peaches is tough and small and firecracky and Slaughter is just perfect! When she falls, it’s graceful.” In essence, Heather just tries to do the best that she can and puts out 100% of herself…and she has a fabulous time doing it.
Because she’s lived in New Orleans most of her life, remembering her first crawfish boil was difficult, if not impossible. As far back as she can remember, her stepfather Ike would have boils (pronounced “bowls”) every spring and summer.   
When her boyfriend Pat comes home from work each spring, the first thing he buys is a big sack of crawfish for a boil. Although Pat won’t reveal his “secret” seasonings, Heather did say he liked to add oranges, mushrooms, celery, garlic, onions and Zatarain’s Crab Boil.
Yes, Heather most definitely sucks the heads too. “I even eat the orange stuff inside…don’t know what it is, but I love it.” 

The crawfish boil chronicles: Anne Baker

Inching ever forward in my “crawfish boil” quest, I met with Anne Baker several days ago to enjoy a few beers and get the “dirt” on the woman who has her hands in the soil of the city.  You see, Anne is quite possibly the foremost local authority on sustainable/organic farming in New Orleans.

Born in Lake Charles, approximately three hours west of New Orleans, Anne lived in many different cities like Ormond Beach, Florida; Jefferson City, Missouri; Evansville, Indiana and all over Dallas, Texas; but she always knew that she wanted to live in the Crescent City.

“We would come here on vacation and when I was five years old, I remember seeing a brass band for the first time and feeling that trombone…you know those low notes that shake your breath…” Anne said. “I remember going to Jackson Square and seeing the pigeons…Cafe Du Monde…and I just knew that when I saw that brass band, I was like ‘I’m movin’ here when I grow up.’  That was it.”

Even more amazing, Anne vividly remembers seeing world famous jazz trumpeter “Dizzy” Gillespie perform at Preservation Hall when she was just a little girl. “I distinctly remember because I said ‘Ma, who is that guy with the big, puffy face?’ He looked like a bullfrog and he had that bent horn and I remember him calling me up and I was dancing by his horn, and he kept playing with me…”

The rhythm of New Orleans had firmly embedded itself into her soul, but it wasn’t until 1992 that she finally came here to live.

If you’ve ever met Anne, you’ll agree that one of her most distinctive features is a radiant smile.  It was with this infectious grin that she recalled her first digs in New Orleans.  For only $200 a month, she and her boyfriend (at the time) were living in a double shotgun, camel back house on 8th Street in the Garden District.  At first, they tried to renovate the old building with some minor repairs, but it all got to be too much when the plumbing and electricity began to fail and when they started to see the sky through the ceiling on the left side of the house!

When I finally stopped laughing, I asked Anne about the origins of her interests in organic farming. Apparently, Anne spent a lot of time with her Cajun grandmother who lived in the rural town of Sulfur, Louisiana.  While they weren’t exactly farmers, they had a few cows and a flourishing vegetable and flower garden.  When comparing the fresh ingredients she ate at her grandmother’s house to produce she found in the grocery store, Anne was always disappointed.  She realized that if she wanted fresh produce, she would have to grow it herself.

After working in a Garden Center, Anne knew that organic was the “way to go” because using conventional products (pesticides) always induced some sort of ecological “backlash.”  For example, if you used a pesticide that killed all bugs, it wasn’t long before the “bad” bugs would come back even stronger and spread disease.

It wasn’t long before she was offered a job to run a certified organic farm and nursery at Arc of Greater New Orleans, the local chapter of a non-profit organization dedicated to serving people with developmental disabilities.  At the time, it was the only organic farm in the entire Gulf Coast. Anne also opened another organic nursery in Metairie for Arc and supplied the landscape department.  They would sell the potted plants from the nursery in a retail store front and in garden shows.  But all of the plants Anne grew in the ground, she would sell to local chefs.

After the floods in 2005, Arc scaled down their businesses, including the gardens and nurseries.  Luckily, Anne was hired by the Food & Farm Network, making sure low income families had access to fresh produce and also worked on local and national food justice issues. Later, she opened a farm in Gentilly in the 7th Ward as part of Parkway Partners‘ effort to help folks open community gardens by obtaining permission from the city to grow on empty lots, installing water meters, etc.

Today, Anne works for Mat & Naddie’s in several different capacities including public relations, bartending and waitressing.  She also successfully convinced chef and owner Steve Schwartz to start a garden specifically to grow fresh produce for the restaurant. They even hold sustainable gardening workshops from time to time at the homelike, riverside eatery.

When I finally asked Anne about her first crawfish boil, she replied “I can’t really recall the first time. But I do remember that we would always go to my grandma’s house, and I’d go play in the ditch and bring little crawfish out and say ‘can we eat these?’ And she’d say ‘No…they’re only an inch long, we better wait for them to grow.'”

She said that she often went with her grandfather in his boat or pirogue and would go “oyster dredging, shrimpin’, fishin’ and bullfrog giggin’.”  Never having heard the phrase “bullfrog gigging” before, I asked Anne what she meant.

“You take a trident-like spear and a flashlight and you shine the light into the water and the bullfrog’s eyes will reflect back.  Then you take the trident (this is pretty brutal now) and you stab the bullfrog…and then you have frog legs.  Alligators eyes reflect back too, but they are a different color and you definitely, do not want to stab an alligator in the head.  It ain’t nice…nothin’ pretty”

When Anne attended her first boil in New Orleans, it had been many years since she’d eaten crawfish, but I suppose old habits die hard because the knack for peeling them came back to her in a matter of moments. “I out-peeled everyone at the table. I find myself again and again eating crawfish or crab and I start to feel kind of guilty because I fly through them, I can do it in my sleep.”
Then she smiled and said “I definitely suck the heads early on in the boil, but then I quit because a lot of times it gets too salty or spicy by the 2nd or 3rd batch.”  

The crawfish boil chronicles: Ryan Tramonte

One of the most important events of my new life in New Orleans was the first time I got invited to a crawfish boil. To me, it was a pivotal, food-related experience that, like no other, had endeared me to the locals and made me feel welcome and included.

Lately, I’ve had this undeniable urge to discover if that first crawfish boil (or the first you can remember anyhow) is as important to others, both locals and transplants alike, as it is to me.  So, I thought it would be fun to interview folks from all walks of life to find out…what was your first crawfish boil like?

Beneath the shady trees in the empty courtyard behind the Maple Leaf, I met with Ryan Tramonte, a good friend and a good sport who was the first person willing to face my crawfish boil inquiry.  Ryan is the General Manager of the French Art Network, a group that encompasses four prestigious art galleries; two in California and two right here in the historic French Quarter.  He is well-known in the local art community and for his unique and hilarious art blogs on NewOrleans.Com.

Born and raised in Lutcher, Louisiana, Ryan spent his youth surrounded by an extended family who all built houses on a large plot of his father’s family’s land that became affectionately known as “Tramonteville”. Ryan speaks fondly of his cousins (Lou, Cindy, Jodi, Dwayne, Darren, Kristy and Stevie), “they were all my brothers and sisters” and recalls bouncing from house to house where they all had five different meals to choose from on any given night, whether it be red beans and sweet tea at Maw Maw Toni’s, spaghetti at Aunt Betty’s or cakes and pastries at Aunt Tina’s who is such an excellent baker “she could open her own bakery.”

In his mid-twenties, Ryan began developing food allergies that have severely limited his dining choices, something I considered a desperate tragedy, made exponentially worse since he lives in a city that is known internationally for it’s cuisine. When I asked Ryan to share the last really excellent meal he’s had in the city, his mouth slowly widened into a mischievous smile.

“I can’t even recall the last really good meal I’ve eaten,” Ryan confessed, “but I can remember my last dessert.”  One evening at Cochon Restaurant after imbibing a few too many, Ryan devoured two slices of white chocolate cheesecake when he couldn’t even touch his entree (at no fault to the restaurant). His love of sweets and pastries always wins out over his allergies, regardless of the consequences. His motto? “No matter how sick I get, I will always eat cake.” I suggested that perhaps Aunt Tina’s baking was too good.

When I asked Ryan about his earliest crawfish memory, he candidly relayed that he had been to so many when he was younger that they all sort of blurred together.  But he did distinctly recall when he and his parents would go “crawfishing” in the swamps on the side of the railroad tracks.  His father taught him how to manage the line and how to use “melt” (beef pancreas) as bait. “There were flies stuck to it [melt] all the time,” Ryan explained while cringing. “I had a real issue touching it, but then I had a real issue doing anything outside. My poor father didn’t have a Louisiana outdoorsman for a son at all.”

On one of these fishing trips, Ryan managed to fall onto a railroad spike that gouged a fairly large chunk of flesh from his side.  Apparently, his parents didn’t think the injury warranted a hospital visit, but Ryan, being in love with drama as he is, took advantage of his wound, spent a couple of days laid up on the couch where he undoubtedly was tended to, hand and foot. The quarter-sized scar on his side serves as a constant reminder of his fishing incident to this day.

The oft-held crawfish boils, he went on to describe, ran one into the other where he and his parents would catch a sack or two of crawfish and bring them back home. They would boil them up with potatoes, corn, onions and garlic and they would all (aunts, cousins, parents, grandparents and sister) enjoy a big outside meal on a Friday or Saturday night in Tramonteville.

At last, I simply had to ask Ryan one more question…do you suck the heads? He tilted his head and smiled at me.

“It all depends..” he began.

“On the quality of the crawfish?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re talking about crawfish?” he laughed.

Our laughter finally faded when Ryan looked at me and said, ” Of course I suck the heads…why bother eating crawfish at all if you aren’t willing to experience the entire process?”

Why indeed?

You sucked the head!

Back in March of 2004, I was invited to my very first crawfish boil at the Hi Ho Lounge, a dive club on St. Claude Avenue just a block away from Elysian Fields. Casey and Brandon, a sweet couple I met in the first months after moving here from the Bay Area, brought me to the Hi Ho quite often to imbibe while enjoying the magical spinning talents of DJ Proppa Bear (now found at the Dragon’s Den most nights).

A large pot was set up in the back of the building, boiling furiously, enclosing the hungry in a warm scented vapor of garlic, onions, cayenne pepper and special mix of seasonings that I was not privy to at the time. The helpless crawfish were struggling fruitlessly in a huge Styrofoam cooler next to the bubbling pot. Casey explained to me how they have to be purged in salt water, which cleans them out before they are boiled.  These were already purged and ready to go…it was only a few more minutes before they would be sacrificed to the boiling depths of the pot.

We strolled back into the bar, trying to act like we were patient, like the aroma wasn’t maddening.  There were at least 15 other people anxiously awaiting the first batch, all coveting seats near a large table in the center of the room covered in layers of newspaper.  We sat in a booth nearby with a stack of plastic trays in front of us just waiting, pulling long draughts from icy bottles of Abita Amber and Red Stripe.  Sweet strains of Bob Marley trickled out from a stereo somewhere behind the bar as it was still too early for anyone to be spinning, only 4:30 in the afternoon.  Heck, technically the bar wasn’t even open yet…we were the lucky ones because Brandon had brought this delicious haul of crawfish all the way from Ville Platte.

Finally, the man of the hour came staggering in with a large strainer filled with bright red crawfish, dripping red tinted water behind him onto the concrete floor.  Everyone immediately crowded close as the cook dumped his bounty out onto the table, already grabbing handfuls and piling it onto their trays.  I scooped up some of the crawfish along with some other choice bits like a hunk of andouille sausage, garlic and a few red potatoes and then sat back down at our booth.

Casty and Brandon were patient with me, smiling as they showed me how to twist off the curled tail to remove it from the rest of the body.  Right after I pulled my first crawfish in half, I put the head portion to my lips and sucked on it.  The strong, spicy flavor of the boil hit my tongue along with the golden, delicious fat that was left over in the head.  I had closed my eyes to savor the experience and when I opened them again, everyone at the table was staring at me with wide eyes and mouths open…their own feasts lying forgotten in their hands.

“You sucked the head!” Casey cried in astonishment. “No one sucks the heads!  At least, people who aren’t locals don’t!”

I looked at their surprised faces and laughed. I felt like perhaps I had broken some cardinal rule about first-timers eating crawfish.

They explained to me that, although they had brought tons of tourist/transplant friends to boils before, not one of them ever was willing to suck the head without a lot of encouragement and even then, it was very rare.  They just laughed and shook their heads as we continued to eat the incredible bounty before us.  From time to time they would call over one of their friends, repeatedly exclaiming how I had “sucked the head” without encouragement.

Even though I had told them before, I guess they didn’t remember my story about why I was even in New Orleans in the first place.  You see, ever since I was little I have been fascinated by this town.  I had read books, seen movies and had researched  (for fun) what life was like down here in the Crescent City.  I had asked my parents on many occasions to come here on vacation.  After graduating high school, I sought colleges in the area because I wanted to come here so badly…but my family resisted me, they wanted me to stay in California.  I understood that they just wanted me near, but this was my dream, something I had been aching for, something I had set my sights on and I didn’t want to back down but, unfortunately, I did.

After succumbing to their wishes, I went to school in Northern California and ended up settling down after graduation, moving in with a boyfriend and finding a steady job only minutes from where I had grown up, where I had spent almost my entire life. I wasn’t happy but I tried my best to do what everyone wanted me to do and stay close to home.

My unhappiness filtered into my relationship and after dating for almost five years, my boyfriend and I broke up.  Then, not a year later, I got laid off from my job.  I kept thinking that all this happened for a reason and that now was the time, now I will go to New Orleans.

Within a month I had flown into Louis Armstrong Airport, put my first month’s deposit on an apartment on Harmony Street in the Garden District and returned to the Bay Area to pack up my apartment and get ready to drive across country, over 2,000 miles, to New Orleans

That last night before I left California, I was so elated!  I was finally doing it.  I promised myself that I would absorb all the wonderful things that makes this city so incredible, so very unique.  I would wander her streets, embrace her music and last, but certainly not least, I would eat her food. 

So when Casey and Brandon asked me why I “sucked the heads,”  I simply responded, “why not?”