Crab Boil Narratives
by Valerie Erwin
Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Notes from invited artists and community members consider place via the street, sound, food, trees, and other portals.
Valerie Erwin traces a history of crab boils from her father's Savannah childhood to growing up in North Philadelphia to her very own Geechee Girl Rice Cafe.
I grew up on a rowhouse block in North Philadelphia: brick houses jammed cheek by jowl, concrete sidewalks, a street too narrow for two cars abreast. The families were almost as close as the houses. Children spent summer days running in and out of one another’s homes.
On my block, eating outside was considered declassé. There were exceptions. Grilling in the backyard was okay. Eating snacks like potato chips or candy bars—things that required neither cooking nor knife and fork—was tolerated. But the most indulgent exception to the no public-eating rule, was when some neighbor made a communal meal and everyone was invited.
Sometimes there were boiled peanuts. Occasionally a fish fry. My favorite were my father’s hard shell crabs, which he often caught himself off the Jersey shore. He’d pour a bushel of crabs into a galvanized washtub—the only vessel we owned that could hold such a quantity—and dust them liberally with spicy red seasoning. The washtub was heated on our 50’s era Roper stove, covering all four burners.
When the crabs were cooked, neighbors would stream out of their houses to get a plateful. We sat on our newspaper-covered marble steps, passing around claw crackers and picks. The grownups drank beer. The kids drank soda. I don’t remember any condiments. Maybe there was coleslaw. When every last crab was gone, we rolled up the newspaper, shells and all, and threw the lot away.
I didn’t know it then, but those neighborhood crab feasts hearkened back to my father’s Savannah childhood and foreshadowed my own Low Country restaurant.
In the early 2000’s my sisters were visiting Aunt Netta, my father’s youngest sister. Netta was irritated that each time she bought shrimp for a “Low Country Boil,” someone would cook them up before she’d a chance to organize the boil.
What, we wondered, was a Low Country Boil? Research described a one pot meal with crabs, shrimp, potatoes, corn, and sausage, usually made for a large group. This was it! The perfect event for Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, our restaurant dedicated to community, family, and Low Country foodways.
So at least once a summer, when the crabs were running and the corn was sweet, Geechee Girl Rice Cafe hosted a Low Country Crab Boil. We covered tables with newspaper, put pans of hot crabs on top, and served bowls of the other components. New customers became old friends. Old friends got a chance to see the Erwin family all together. I even have photos of my now deceased mother cracking crabs.
When it was over, we rolled up the newspaper, shells and all, and threw the lot away.
Geechee Girl closed in 2014 but I’ll always think of our Crab Boils as the epitome of food, community and culture.