I love crawfish boils — but, please, don't be insulted if I eat before I come over.
Until I was in my early 20s, my favorite food was shrimp — not battered, deep-fried or served in a po-boy, but boiled and peeled shrimp cocktail, served ice-cold with horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. I could put them down like some people go through a couple of dozen oysters.
On a trip to Baltimore and Annapolis, Md. I took full advantage of the Chesapeake Bay seafood, eating nothing but shrimp, blue crab and crab cakes for 24 hours. When my skin began itching, I ignored it, but pretty soon I was wheezing and my entire body began swelling up. (Think Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — except Violet turned into a blueberry; I was just one giant angry brick-red hive.) I went to a Baltimore emergency room, where doctors took me right away and put me on a Benadryl drip, but they didn't make the connection between the reaction and seafood, and neither did I.
A few months later, I was at a Chinese restaurant eating shrimp toast, shrimp rumaki, and honey-walnut shrimp when it happened again. This time the doctor delivered the bad news: No more shrimp. No more crab, crawfish or lobster. No more shellfish, ever.
I'm not alone — in either the allergy or the late onset of it. According to a decade-old study published in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology, 60 percent of shellfish allergies develop in adulthood. Other allergies, like peanut sensitivities, tend to crop up at a fairly young age, but going into anaphylaxis after a bite of shrimp is something you can develop later in life. (And, yes, I mean you; the thought of never eating shellfish again would have been inconceivable to my old shrimp-scarfing self.)
This is probably not such a big deal for residents of landlocked states, where staying away from the Red Lobster probably reduces the danger of shellfish reactions to zero. Living in south Louisiana, however, where shrimp is one of the four basic food groups, things are trickier. Speaking up in a restaurant is no problem, but when someone invites you to a home-cooked meal, who wants to be the pain in the ass who sends back a dietary restriction with the r.s.v.p.?
The most awkward moment I've ever experienced in a restaurant was at Bourbon House, at a lunch for a visiting food critic. The appetizer was a single shrimp, which the server cleared away without comment, but when I didn't touch my shrimp salad, suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder and a discreet question from the manager. It turned out there was to be shellfish in every course (had I known, I would have quietly declined the invitation, with regrets) and suddenly my plates were the center of attention as the server brought me a different order and table talk derailed to food allergies, turning a nice lunch into a discussion of special diets and embarrassing the hell out of me.
I've never had a shrimp po-boy from Domilise's or Parkway Bakery and never tasted Pascal's Manale barbecue shrimp, but I've eaten at all those restaurants with friends, without drama. And I know there are substitutes available — some kosher stores, for instance, sell a shrimp substitute made of surimi, similar to "krabstick" at a sushi restaurant. But imitation shrimp is the Pat Boone or Miley Cyrus of the food world — a cultural appropriator that doesn't even come close to the original. I'll stick with fin fish or cephalopods like squid or octopus, or go off the grid and order something else entirely.
There's always something good to eat in Louisiana, even if it's a hamburger at a crawfish boil.