Red, mutilated crustacean corpses were all over the sun-scorched, tread-flattened grass in front of the Rosey Baby booth, where the crawfish boil was going down. Lines of festivalgoers, many in bright dresses and black, Velcro Reeboks with frilly socks, trampled the husks as they inched toward the counter to get a fresh heap of the crawdads that were being retrieved from a vat of boiling, spiced water.
It is true that the curious cuisine looked like the monster in the 1987 sci-fi flick Predator. It is also true that the fashion at the recent, 12th Annual Fort Lauderdale Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival was frivolous and absurd. But Mark Fodera, main stage manager, stirred a nod from Night Court when he asked, "It's contagious fun, isn't it?"
Got to admit, there was some kind of plunge-your-hands-right-into-the-crustaceans visceral charm to the event. There's the bond the organizers and patrons of the three-day event. Each half hour brought on a new event -- another accordion-toting band, zydeco dancing lessons, or the crawfish speed-eating contest.
If you buy into all of the Chicken Littling, all of this is just going to end after 12 years during which, one volunteer informed me, the festival has grown from a small thing to a conglomeration of 40,000 Cajun-loving partiers, mostly out-of-towners -- ka-ching ka-ching. And though the daily newspaper described the festival in a melodramatic piece about how all the organizers are going to lose their beloved festival because the city has cut off money, it might not be time to hang up the washboard just yet: "I seriously wouldn't worry about this festival because the private sponsors are coming in left and right to pick this up," Fedora said. "I think the sponsor will be there. Whether the people will be there to do the work remains to be seen."
And that's promising, 'cause it means I might get to see another crawfish-eating contest, which this year held me in its gruesome grip.
At 3 p.m. that Sunday, a tall, lone figure stood between the Crazee Crawfish Stage and the table in front of it, on which three Styrofoam boxes rested with little antennae and legs poking out. All I could see of him was a straw hat, a blue Hawaiian shirt, dark sunglasses, and a confident smile. He was the only contestant so far. I'll call him Bayou Billy.
On-stage, a thin, deep-voiced emcee dressed in long, red stockings, a tie-dyed shirt, and a red bandanna that made him resemble a crawdad -- I'll call him Crawdaddy -- was trying to persuade two more people to join up. "I really want to run this contest with three people."
After a couple more volunteerless minutes, a stocky man named Mickey joined a petite Asian woman in pink slacks walked toward the table. "Ah, she's pulling her hair back," Crawdaddy said as a crowd of 30 or so gathered around the table. The contestants lined up, and the announcer said, "We're gonna go on 3-2-1 A-yee."
As the crowd repeated the countdown, I wanted to scream, "Run away."
But they all screamed "A-yee," and the three hunching figures began stuffing the water bugs into their faces.
The announcer started in, "Now remember, they have to crush and suck those heads."
Ugh. Make the bad man stop.
"What I want you to consider is that this is a crawfish boil, boil, boil. These just came out of the boiler, boiler, boiler. So guess what that means? They're hot, baby!"
Before you could blink, Bayou Billy stepped away from the empty box and grinned.
The other two contestants lagged sadly behind, barely halfway through their boxes.
Mary, the competition's powerful-looking judge, walked over to Bayou Billy's box and started sifting through the carcasses.
As she finished her job, Crawdaddy came 'round to the topic of the day, "Y'all having a good time this weekend?"
"Yeah," everyone screamed.
"Y'all think we should quit doing this?"
"What are you gonna do about it?"
"Party on," someone screamed.
He corrected, "Call the city. Call the newspaper. Write letters and let them know that you want the Cajun/Zydeco Fest to continue."
He looked back down at Bayou Billy and said, "We need some napkins."
Then Crawdaddy declared Bayou Billy the grand champion for the weekend. The man's tall, brunet wife and two young sons surrounded him, and photographers started snapping shots.
I descended upon him for a kamikaze interview. "So, crawfish are kind of disgusting. I wouldn't even touch one. How do you scarf them so quickly?"
With a Southern easiness of manner, the Louisiana native returned, "You know, I've been eating crawfish since I was about 5 years old. You know, it's as natural to me as, I don't know, eating shrimp for most people."
I came back with what seemed to me a logical parallel, "Right, so would you eat a cockroach?"
"Ah," he tossed his head back in laughter and rested his slimy hand on my arm. "Well, depends on who cooked it. What kind of seasonings. How the batter is, you know, that kind of stuff."
"So, what's the secret? How do you get through them so fast?"
"What you gotta do, you gotta know how to break 'em in half. You twist and pull." He leaned toward me, red fluid glistening in the corners of his lips, "And this is the secret," he said, bringing about the possibility of his downfall next year, if there is a next year. "You put the meat in your mouth, in your teeth, and squeeze at the same time. When you pull at the same time, it pops out. Those guys in the competition don't know that. They think they need to peel it."
I walked back over to the shaded picnic table to rejoin my friend and complained, "Oh my God, that guy touched my arm right after eating those disgusting things."
A couple at the table looked up from their pile of ten-legged chow.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, "I know that they must taste good, but they're just..."
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"Ditch crickets," the cowboy-hatted, bearded man finished.
A Warsteiner or two later, I bumped into a Loxahatchee man in purple glasses with a bandanna tied around his head. He was dancing around the grass strumming the washboard on his belly, mouthing the words to the song "Let's Zydeco Again."
That didn't sound like wishful thinking. So I invested $20 in a black cowboy hat on my way out, dropped it on my cranium, and made a mental note to wear it next year for more icky fun.