Family matters: a Cajun story

In the swamp
In the swamp

Anyone that knows me knows how much I value my family. As an only child, I’m very close to my parents, and as the only “only” in my huge family, I was very close to my cousins growing up, and to all of my aunts and uncles. Moving away from my home state of Louisiana at a young age made it hard to stay close over the years, so I cherish every phone call, email, or visit with my relatives. I was fortunate enough to see both an uncle and an aunt this weekend in DC when they were passing through on business, and of course, there is always some reminiscing.

People who know me also know how much I love my Cajun heritage: with that comes our love of gathering over food, especially boiled seafood. So with that being said, at the risk of embarrassment, I’m going to share a story that I wrote in high school about one of my fondest memories growing up with my family in Louisiana — hanging out at my aunt’s camp on the lake and having a crab boil. The story itself doesn’t represent one particular day, but is more of a conglomeration of memories from over the years. It remains one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written, and when I do get together with my family for a crab or crawfish boil, I’m in my element, and at my happiest. So, please enjoy this little piece of me… lagniappe:

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Cajuns, Crabs, and Comfort

I was on my way home from a friend’s one afternoon, and I was in one of those nostalgic moods, the kind where everything suddenly seems dreamy and sad and I kept thinking about my innocent days as a child. Going forty-five on the road just before my neighborhood, I passed the familiar building which always has the two jet-skis parked out front. Usually I just think, “Oh, I wish I had a jet ski,” and drive on. This time was different. It brought me back to a place I used to go: a place of happiness, of family, and of love.

“Who wants crabs?” Aunt Denny’s rhetorical question rings out from inside the screened porch. Would anyone in this family ever not want crabs?

“MEEeeee!” about fifty people yell, and everyone scrambles to grab a blue plastic tray and a knife. Hot, sticky bodies playfully shove each other as we all try to get the best pick—the biggest, juiciest, reddest crab we can find.  Good-natured teasing and swatting of knives ensue and the POP! of more Coors Lights being opened blends in with the banter of this jovial family.

Lil’ Bo’s voice booms out from the back of the line, “Y’all better not be eatin’ all my crabs, ya hear?” We chuckle and someone makes a wisecrack back at him, leading to the usual round of cat-and-mouse. Speaking from experience, it’s better not to try and argue with Bozie because you won’t win.

Seafood boil

Standing in the line that is moving along quite slowly thanks to some of the kids being pickier than others, I glance around and take in my surroundings. Lake Verret isn’t what some people would call a pretty place, but to me it’s beautiful. Aunt Denny’s old whitewashed camp sits right on the edge of the swampy lake with the cypress trees growing at the back step, and the moss providing the perfect amount of shade. A rickety weathered dock runs out into the lake where the kids jump onto the Sea-Doo and frantically scramble up the ladder when they feel a snake in the murky water. It’s like a scene straight from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a book made into a movie about four women growing up in Louisiana. Only this is much better, and it’s real.

“Ready, Jen?” Aunt Denny holds the tongs over the steaming pile of crab, the corn on the cob and spiced potatoes mixed in generously.

“Oh, yeah, any of them are fine, thanks.”  I take my tray with the crabs, grab a cold Coke, and wander back outside to find an open spot to eat. There isn’t much room left considering I was at the end of the line, so I settle on a stump at the edge of the property, ready to dig in. The pounding of knives and cracking of crab claws fills my ears and everyone seems to be shouting at once, just like always. Some of my younger cousins remain in the water shrieking and splashing each other with seaweed. Breaking off the first claw of a boiled crab, I’m happy to see a big chunk of white meat protruding from the end. I always try to break the claws so that the sliver of meat is exposed. This is one of the finer points of eating crab that I learned from my grandfather at an early age.  Slowly pushing the fluffy meat into my mouth, I gingerly pull it out of the claw, savoring the juices it is drenched in. Heaven. No doubt about it, boiled crab is one of the best foods in the world. Tender, light and spicy, it can almost melt in your mouth if cooked properly.

A light but hot breeze blows in my face, pushing my hair back from my moist forehead. The Coke isn’t doing a good job of cooling me off; I’m soaked with sweat. Louisiana humidity is like having a personal sauna at your inconvenience. I watch as my older cousins Richie and Stevie exchange tips on cooking, something at which they both excel. Their sun-browned hands make great stirring motions as they gesture when describing common Cajun-style ingredients. The numerous poodles that my relatives own run freely around us, sniffing at our plates and hoping to get a lick of our fingers. MaMa is sitting on the swing with Aunt Nell, both of them eating and talking at the same time. From time to time Aunt Bernie’s maniacal laugh breaks through the thick layer of moisture that saturates the air. I heave an immense sigh of contentment and wish that we could all stay right here forever.

I slow down as I round the curve on the last stretch before home. Smiling, I recall the atmosphere at the lake and the overwhelming sense of comfort. Everyone looked happy, sounded happy and felt happy. It was a storybook setting being with the people I love in a place I love, just soaking up the moment. Those were the times when I began to realize what family is all about and I wanted to take in as much as I could.  Laughter, teasing, swimming, cold drinks and good food—all ingredients that flavor my family. Although over the years our reunions became fewer in number, each time we got together it was as if no time had passed. We always can pick up right where we left off, continuing a joke from years before or reminiscing about another fun-filled gathering. Even though many of my cousins have families of their own and we are all leading busy lives, we know that we can escape to a place of comfort and affection where we will all be together and have a good time. If there’s love in a family, it’s always crab-eating time.

Penny for your thoughts?

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