Behind the Scenes: Cajun competitive eating
Ryan Summerlin June 16, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first story.
Shreveport’s Mudbug Madness festival was in its fourth and final day. Neither heat, threat of thunderstorms, nor crawfish overload seemed to be slowing down this crowd of crawfish worshippers.
On my own, I had the opportunity to melt into the crowd. Needless to say, delicious food makes for good conversation points. With my well-chosen order of fried crawfish tails, French fries and Sierra Mist in hand, it was time to eat and take in the sights, sounds and smells that engulfed me.
I found a seat at end of a long table in the pavilion, far from the large stage where a band cranked out Zydeco music. Across from me, an older couple from Omaha, Nebraska enjoyed their own Cajun feast. Never shy about striking up conversations with strangers, I discovered Georgette and Don Crews were first-time festivalgoers. Following advice of a Shreveport friend, they drove from Omaha to experience this Louisiana tradition. They loved it and assured me they would come again.
Having enjoyed my lunch and pleasant conversation, I set off to explore the rest of the festival.
Reaching the boiling point
According to Melanie Bacon, Downtown Shreveport Unlimited’s executive director, 25 food vendors serve a broad array of Creole and Cajun dishes. However, boiled crawfish sales are limited to three local nonprofits: Shreveport Police Downtown Mounted Patrol Support Group, C. E. Byrd High School Booster Club and Evangeline Academy Club. Shreveport-based Shaver’s Crawfish and Catering sources and boils onsite the tens of thousands of pounds of live crawfish, 40,000 ears of corn and 20,000 potatoes the nonprofits to serve.
Being a horse lover, I gravitated to the Mounted Patrol’s booth. At the boiling point next to the booth, Shaver’s employees, Rowdy Burleson and Jason Norman, braved the pungent smell of cayenne-laden boiling water to provide a steady flow of hot, spicy boiled crawfish, corn on the cob and red potatoes. The only thing missing in my opinion was Andouille. No boil at my dad’s house lacked sausage!
Forty-pound burlap sacks of angry, snapping crawfish were moved from a refrigerated truck, opened and poured into hampers. Next stop for the crawfish was a brief, five- to six-minute dip in one of the two vats of boiling, seasoned water. A Cajun once said to me, “You bawl the crawfish as long as it takes to drink a can of beer.” I’m going to start timing things in my kitchen based on consumption of wine.
I could write a tome on the various boiling contraptions one can find in Louisiana. At the festival, Shaver’s used a covered trailer with two vats over which pulleys were mounted to lift the crawfish-laden mesh strainers from the water at exactly the right moment. From the vats, boiled crawfish were dumped into a large metal trough, drained, transferred to ice chests then handed over to the sales booth. Since the $8 servings of corn, potatoes and crawfish sell quickly, boiling is a continual process throughout the festival’s operating hours.
The three nonprofits rely on crawfish sales for a large percentage of its annual fundraising. The Mounted Patrol Support Group’s participation in the event netted $11,000 this year, somewhat down over previous years. The group’s president and former Shreveport Police Chief, Mike Van Sant, told me funds are used for officer training and equipment purchases, such as English saddles, the downtown mounted police use in their work. The festival is all about promoting a vibrant downtown district and the police are an integral part of providing safe environments for events.
Pinching tails, sucking heads
Before I rushed back to my hotel to shower and leave for the airport, I wanted to witness the women’s crawfish eating contest. I was tempted to compete, but knew my fellow passengers would not appreciate my crawfish perfume. As my readers know, I love to write from an experiential point of view. Given my schedule, I was content to watch.
Upon seeing the U.S. Open of Competitive Eating on ESPN, the late George Carlin remarked, “Competitive eating isn’t a sport. It’s one of the seven deadly sins.” Gluttony may be sin, but in my humble opinion, crawfish eating contests are less about overeating and more about technique. You have to peel the little suckers before you can consume them.
Volunteers set up a long table with chairs on the front end of the pavilion stage as crowds gathered along the metal barricade. Excitement grew as the start of the last crawfish eating contest approached (celebrities, men and children competed earlier in the festival). A bottle of Bud Light beer and tin pans piled with five pounds of boiled crawfish were set at each spot.
With great fanfare, the 12 Bud Light T-shirt clad contestants marched onto the stage. Judges assembled in front of each competitor to ensure all tail meat was consumed. There was no requirement to suck the fat from each head. To the rocking strains of (She’s a) “Brick House,” the ladies dove into their crawfish piles. The tail-pinching race had begun!
Immediately, it was evident this competition involved technical skills, not merely fast eating. Some of the contestants daintily peeled the tails, cleaning off shell fragments before eating them. Clearly, these were not women in pursuit of victory.
One competitor sporting a button-covered cowboy hat with a raccoon tail hanging off the back, appeared to me as a serious competitor of Olympian abilities. This woman was getting it done fast. I was convinced she would win. Wrong.
Unbeknownst to me, toward the end of the table, third time competitor, Mimi McDaniel, was about to ingest her last crawfish tail. Suddenly, after five minutes and 12 seconds, McDaniel jumped up, gave a Rocky Balboa victory dance and was declared the winner (once her judge confirmed no tail meat remained in her pan).
Later, McDaniel, from Fouke, Arkansas, told me this was her third attempt to win the festival competition. First time she came in third. Last year, with a time of eight minutes and 10 seconds, she took second place. With husband, Ellis, and beloved German Shepherd Ranger cheering her on, third time was the charm.
According to McDaniel, who is “living a combination of lifetimes” as a DJ, paralegal and “Muttley Crew” pet rescuer, speed-peeling crawfish is “all in the thumb.” Last year, she filled her mouth, then chewed and swallowed. McDaniel, who only sucked the head of one crawfish, doesn’t eat the shell. Obviously, some do. This year, she chewed and swallowed one tail at a time to win a $50 check, gift certificate and trophy.
It was time for me to leave the humidity of my native Louisiana and head back to my Rocky Mountain adopted home. As I settled into my seat in the sardine can that is the Embraer 145 regional jet, I reflected on the day.
I owe Shreveport an apology. I suppose I too was one of those snooty bayou country folks who believe Shreveport was really supposed to be in Texas. Now, having experienced its 30-year old crawfish festival, they get this part Cajun’s seal of bayou country authenticity. The festival has it all — great food, top notch Cajun music and, most importantly, that trademark Louisiana warm hospitality.