Kat Stromquist | Illustrations by Marshall Blevins
You can’t spit in New Orleans without hitting a good restaurant.
From the “haute Creole” that’s descended from high French cuisine, to cerebral molecular gastronomy, to trendy $17 sandwiches replete with locally grown sprouts and heritage turkey, we’ve got it all. It’s become one of the things I’ve loved best about living here—our eating-as-sport culture, the mostly-pointless arguments about who has the best banh mi.
But the place I’m most attached to isn’t going to show up on any food critic’s top ten list or even their list of so-called hidden gems. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d describe it as good. And before I changed jobs and started driving by it every day, I didn’t even know it was there.
C&A Seafood is a no-frills takeout joint that squats at the corner where Jefferson Davis Parkway begins, across from the old mayonnaise factory that’s been converted into overpriced “artist lofts.” It’s a very common genre of New Orleans neighborhood restaurant. These places serve hot boiled seafood including crawfish, shrimp and crabs as well as po-boys, fried catfish, and Chinese food-adjacent items like fried rice and yakamein.
A short Google Maps summary calls C&A “nondescript,” which seems a little cold but is probably appropriate: it’s not much more than a few tables, a tile floor and a counter. Neon signs. Weirdly, the property it sits on is about 50 percent parking lot. I have the impression it’s a family business; I think they’re Vietnamese, though I’ve never asked.
I started going there for two reasons. For one, there are just a few takeout places directly on my way home from work. And for two, I wasn’t getting invited to nearly enough crawfish boils.
This probably necessitates a brief sidebar to explain. Typically, a crawfish boil is a big, messy, communal affair involving the boiling and consumption of several dozen pounds of the shellfish, which (if you aren’t sure) are like tiny lobsters that live in the mud. They’re boiled along with “fixin’s” including mushrooms, potatoes, my personal favorite garlic, onions, celery, and sometimes more adventurous add-ons such as pineapple (blech) or Brussels sprouts.
In general, a boil is a great way to kill an afternoon, knocking back beers with your best friends for someone’s birthday or Good Friday. But it’s a labor-intensive and expensive party to host, especially for the broke artist types I typically hang around. And this unfortunate reality butted heads with my apparently ravenous appetite for crawfish.
During the first couple of years I lived here, I’d eat them a few times a year, tops. Every crawfish-eating experience was slightly marred by the knowledge that I didn’t know when the next one would happen.
So last spring I started stopping at C&A—just once in a while—to pick up a couple of pounds of crawfish to have on my own. At first, it was almost like a secret.
The C&A crawfish are, in some ways, not quite right. Sometimes there’s mud that hasn’t been sprayed off their shells, and they’re almost always way too spicy. If I look in the mirror after I’ve eaten them, my lips look like plastic surgery gone wrong, and I’ll cough and choke if I try to suck the juices out of their heads too quickly.
Another thing that’s off: no matter what I order at C&A, I always pay about $13. I suspect they do “estimated” pricing, like the corner store by my old place that knocked a buck off the price of smokes for every year you lived in the neighborhood. But I’m willing to put up with a little irregularity, a few things that are slightly off, for the ritual of C&A Seafood.
What happens is this: I stop in to pick up two or three pounds of crawfish, a link of hot sausage, and maybe a couple of hanks of garlic.
Then I’ll come home, climb the 42 steps to my apartment, and arm myself with an ice water, a roll of paper towels, and a discard plate for shells. I turn on some TV that isn’t too intellectually challenging. Then I’ll sit down on my battered old couch and begin to eat.
It takes a good while to eat crawfish, longer than a regular meal. There’s much unpeeling and sucking and letting the spicy, garlicky juices run down the side of your hands, licking it off before it hits your sleeve. If you’re like me and eat a lot of crawfish, eventually you get into a sort of zen state with it: twist, suck, peel, eat, repeat. That’s what the TV is for, to let your eyes have something to glaze on while you’re eating.
I’ve heard plenty of people argue that the best part of eating crawfish is the gathering, those sunburnt spring days around a picnic table, time spent focused on food and one another. But for me, getting crawfish from C&A is something way better than that.
It’s about experiencing pleasure when no one’s watching.
I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but for me it’s kind of rare get to do something without feeling in some way like I’m performing, or managing anyone’s expectations, acquiescing to responsibilities or anyone else’s needs. In some ways this is part of being a woman, with all its attendant societal burdens, and it’s also just part of being a grownup—the everyday taxes and mundane sacrifices, like getting Chinese food when you want Indian but your friend wants tacos.
But at C&A, I get exactly what I want.
Despite its shabby trappings, its dodgy pricing, its food that’s ever-so-slightly off-key, C&A gives me something I really can’t get anywhere else. It serves up decadence and gluttony and the unique, contrarian pleasure of doing something the “wrong” way on purpose, for less than the price of a parking ticket.
I’ll still go to boils, of course, and I’m always down to try that new Thai-Scandinavian fusion bistro that opened last week.
But when I look back on this time on my life, I think C&A is the place I’ll remember, in that place where sense-memories of food and comfort live. There’s the tile and counter; the journey home with a heavy sack; the quiet and greedy hour that follows.
And later, the gritty spice under my fingernails.
Kat Stromquist’s writing has appeared in numerous literary magazines. She attended the MFA program at University of New Orleans, where she won the Maxine & Joseph Cassin Award for best thesis. She works as a journalist in New Orleans. Follow her on Twitter @kstromquist.
Marshall Blevins was born and raised in the South. She paints and photographs in Lafayette, Louisiana. Follow her @churchgoinmule.
This essay first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Southern Glossary. Order in print or PDF here.