Invasion of the Crawdads!
Welcome to Isleton’s Annual Crawdad Festival, where the visitors are drunk, the crustaceans are hot and spicy and the residents are usually fed up.
Highway 12 between Lodi and Fairfield may be the most dangerous stretch of roadway in California. Blood Alley, the locals call it.
These two straight, narrow lanes of opposed, high-speed traffic link California Delta towns like Rio Vista and Isleton to Interstates 5 and 80. High winds and Tule fog often limit visibility to near zero. Fatal head-on collisions are not infrequent; headlights are required to be turned on for safety at all times. The shoulders of this treacherous strip of asphalt are narrow and there are few safe places to pull over in an emergency. Which was unfortunate, since the 1988 Chrysler LeBaron Turbo had lost power and was steadily slowing a mile or so before the intersection of Highway 12 and Jackson Slough Road, about 10 miles outside of Isleton.
It was 5 p.m. on a scorching Sunday in mid-June, and the car was carrying two people, a reporter and a photographer, who were returning to Isleton to catch the final hours of the 15th Annual Isleton Crawdad Festival. During the past three days, more than 200,000 people had flooded into Isleton, population 850, to attend the festival, transforming the sleepy Delta hamlet 30 miles south of Sacramento into a makeshift Mardis Gras.
The LeBaron was coasting in neutral at 40 mph, inching toward the next available turnout, a farm road a quarter-mile ahead, when the photographer screamed.
“THAT GUY IS GOING TO HIT US!”
An enormous brown and tan Southwind motor home towing a ski boat was bearing down from behind like a stampeding bull. The driver of the motor home hadn’t realized the car was slowing and locked up the brakes. Blue smoke spewed from the tires as the motor home and boat jackknifed down the middle of the highway, skidding straight for the LeBaron.
They braced for impact as the Southwind filled the rearview mirror like an ominous silent movie. It was one of those infinite moments where your life is supposed to pass before your eyes, where profound insight greets those who are about to enter the bright white light. But the only thing that crossed the mind of the reporter as the motor home closed in was that he hadn’t sucked it, and now, he’d never get the chance.
The pressure to suck at the 15th Annual Isleton Crawdad Festival was intense. In fact, “Just Suck It,” a parody of Nike’s “Just Do It” advertisements, was the theme of the festival. T-shirts bearing the theme featured the festival’s star attraction curled up under the phrase like a Nike swoosh. It was an improvement over last year’s subtle and more complex theme, “Pinch Tail and Suck Heads.”
Understand that all this sucking and pinching refers to a most singular creature: the freshwater crustacean known as the crawdad, or, in some more refined circles, the crayfish. Like Jerry Lewis and Bjork, crawdads are popular in France. They’re also popular in Louisiana, where people gather to eat mass quantities of the little suckers boiled alive in mustard seed, cayenne pepper and various other Cajun spices. As Isleton Crawdad Festival lore has it, a shipment of these very same Louisiana crawdads dropped out of the sky back in 1986 (a gift from Bayonne, Isleton’s Louisiana sister city), thus giving birth to the festival. It’s since grown to be the Delta’s largest annual event, a dependable moneymaker for the Isleton Chamber of Commerce.
If the crawdad seems like an odd choice around which to build a major regional festival, particularly in Northern California, it is. Until the festival came along, about the only place you could buy crawdads in Isleton, or anywhere else in the state for that matter, was the bait shop. There are crawdads in the Delta, but they’re not as large as their Southern cousins, so the vast majority of the 22,000 pounds (11 tons!) of crawdads that are consumed at the festival are imported from Louisiana. But by far the oddest thing about the whole crawdad phenomenon is this sucking business.
The crawdad’s hard-shelled body is almost all head. During cooking, the head fills up with boiling, spicy brine that liquefies the internal organs inside it. After it is cooked, the 3-inch- to 6-inch-long creature is torn in half at the waist. The tail is set aside, and the human’s lips are placed over the hole in the bottom of the head where the appendage was once attached. The hot, spicy fluids, along with the crawdad’s internal organs, are then sucked out as the head is gently squeezed. It’s all done in a single movement. As one man who was instructing a newcomer in this fine art at the festival put it: “That’s it baby, squeeze that head and suck it!”
There’s not much real meat on a crawdad—a tiny morsel in the tail about the size of your average salad shrimp. It must be dug out with the fingers, sometimes with considerable difficulty. For many people, particularly those who abhor sucking, this is simply not reward enough. They will tell you that crawdads aren’t worth the bother. But those who suck the head will tell you that sucking is its own reward, an orgasmic culinary experience tinged with danger and eroticism. For them, the sucking’s the thing. Thus, the whole crawdad deal boils down to a simple pseudo-Shakespearean question: To suck, or not to suck?
Laurie, who owns a house on the levee in Isleton immediately adjacent to the festival grounds, has chosen the latter.
“Do I suck?” she said while excitedly preparing for the opening night’s festivities. “Are you crazy? Those things look like bugs.”
A tall, skinny blonde wearing Bongo cut-offs and a pink swimsuit top, she hasn’t always gotten excited about the festival. The Isleton Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the Budweiser-sponsored event, likes to say that the Crawdad Festival put the town on the map. But for locals like Laurie, that’s part of the problem. They live in Isleton because they like being off the map. They appreciate the boost in revenue the festival gives local businesses, but they dread the crowds and the gridlock. And the mass hysteria sucking.
For Laurie, it was easier to switch than fight. After her mom died in 1993, leaving her the house, which has a large private parking area and one of the few private boat docks in Isleton, she started letting the Harley riders who swarm to the event park on her property for free. She says it wasn’t a popular move with the Chamber, which was planning to charge motorcycles the same parking fee as cars.
“I figured, if I can’t beat the festival, I might as well join it,” she laughed, nervously wringing her hands. In the morning, approximately 300 Harley-Davidson riders, members of various motorcycle clubs that had reserved space with her, were due to arrive, and getting them all parked would be a logistical nightmare. She was one of those paradoxical people who complain about being too busy all the time yet seem to thrive on it.
Mary, Laurie’s longtime friend who rents the downstairs floor of the house, was subdued in comparison. Tanned and weathered from years in the Delta, she sat in her boat tied up at the dock, coolly sipping vodka and tonic from a 32-ounce plastic cup with a girlfriend. Mary’s roots in the area run deep. She holds many important tracts of property in the Delta, including several natural gas wells and a trailer park in Rio Vista. Her daughter was the festival’s very first Crawdad Queen.
“No, we don’t suck,” Mary said, shivering. “Those things are nasty.” A life-sized cardboard cutout of Michelle Pfeiffer stared back at her from the facing seat. In the seat next to Mary sat her real-life friend, “Forty-wonderful.” That was her age. Forty-one-derful. She has a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Both women had just come out of rocky relationships. They planned to hold a ritual on Sunday, the last day of the festival, in which they would spread the imaginary ashes of their former lovers on the river.
“We both just dumped some really lousy guys,” Mary said. “Or maybe it’s just that all men are lousy.”
“It’s OK,” Forty-wonderful soothed. “It’s all good.”
That was her saying, “It’s all good.” If someone tried to tell her some bad news she didn’t want to hear, say, something about some horrible traffic accident on Highway 12, she’d wave her hand for them to stop and say, “It’s all good.” She’d catch herself ranting about her latest screwed-up boyfriend, pause, shake her head and say, “It’s all good.” She’d spent much of her life in the Delta, in a maze of winding levee roads and waterways barely above sea level, working as a welder and a firefighter, getting married, raising kids, getting divorced, carrying on. Occasionally, the bad times outweighed the good times, so it was easier to think of them as all good. Otherwise, what was the point? Forty-wonderful. It’s all good.
In the early evening, Mary and Forty-wonderful crossed the street and entered the festival. Main Street was closed to vehicular traffic. Street vendors selling beads, jewelry, T-shirts and skull sticks (large wooden scepters with skulls on top) had set up shop, Cajun and blues bands were playing on two separate stages, men and women in Creole costumes were dancing crazily in the streets, and the lines at the shack selling $10 and $20 boxes of crawdads were 6-people wide and 50-people deep. The crowd was diverse, and thanks to temperatures in the high-90s, many were half-naked. Set between the brick, stucco and wood façades of Isleton’s well-preserved 19th-century clapboard row houses and hotels, the whole scene resembled the set of a voodoo beach movie: “Gidget Goes To Haiti.” Already, the discarded shells of crawdads were being pulverized into a red mulch that would cover vast swaths of street and sidewalk by the festival’s end. As the sun dimmed, the conversations of passersby became charged with drunken, sexual energy.
“This place makes me horny!” screamed a muscular, bare-chested man with pierced nipples.
“I’ve got a good place to eat,” a stocky-looking biker chick said to her tattooed boyfriend. “Get on your knees!”
“Does your carpet match your drapes?” one blonde asked another.
They came from Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland, Modesto, Lodi, Fairfield, Antioch, Pittsburgh, Rio Vista, Isleton and Locke. They worked on the railroad, the river, in local and state government jobs, in the fields, in offices and in car dealerships. One of the Crawdad Festival’s main borrowings from Mardi Gras is the practice of giving away beaded necklaces to women who are willing to expose their breasts in public. There appeared to be no shortage of such women from the above-mentioned cities and towns. Some women even enacted a similar toll on men.
“Want some beads? Then show us your ass!”
Most men, being men, willingly obliged by dropping their pants.
As night descended, Mary disappeared into the crowd to pursue her own idea of fun. Forty-wonderful walked back along Main Street, through the thickening crowds, past the Cajun bands and dancers, and across Second Street to the Hotel Del Rio, a favorite local watering hole.
A band was playing classic rock inside, and the dance floor was crammed with writhing bodies. There was a pair of blond 20-something sisters from Locke. A threesome from Courtland. Everybody seemed to be from the Delta, and Forty-wonderful seemed to know everybody. A man invited her to a party on his boat, a big wooden cabin cruiser anchored just off Laurie’s private dock. She followed him up the levee to Laurie’s house, but when they crested the levee and looked out on the black water, his face went slack.
“My boat! It’s gone!”
He jumped on a beached jet ski and roared frantically off into the night.
“It’s all good,” said Forty-wonderful.
The Harleys began rumbling into Laurie’s parking lot at 10 the next morning. In the distance, cars and motorcycles stretched for miles along the levee roads leading into Isleton.
An unorganized flotilla composed of hundreds of vessels—luxurious cabin cruisers, catamarans, sail boats, ski boats, bass boats, zodiac rafts, inner tubes—filled the river in front of Laurie’s house and beyond. The man who had lost his boat the night before could be seen hauling in his anchor line. His boat had come loose from its mooring and drifted 100 yards downstream.
Laurie was in the parking lot directing traffic. She looked like a chicken with its head cut off, arms flailing, running from bike to bike, screaming at cars to stay out of her parking lot. Traffic on Highway 160 was bumper-to-bumper; the Harley riders had to weave their way through paralyzed rows of cars to get into the parking lot. Once in the lot, they had to ease their 700-pound-plus machines over the steep hump of the levee, getting on the brakes immediately upon cresting it to avoid hitting the bikes already parked on the other side—or driving straight off into the river. Despite the tricky maneuver, the only accident of the day involved a car hitting a pick-up that in turn knocked over a Harley that in turn sent Laurie into a hysterical frenzy.
“Mary! Mary! Mary!”
Mary had gotten home just after noon and was eating red beans and rice in her boat. She saw tall, skinny Laurie in her Bongo cut-offs and pink swimsuit top jumping and waving in the parking lot and took off running, hopping from her boat to the next boat to the dock and on up the gangway.
“It’s all good,” said Forty-wonderful, who was sunning herself on the end of the dock. She watched as Mary attempted to calm Laurie down.
At breakfast, Forty-wonderful had run into a friend of hers from a previous job and invited him over. He had shown up with a case of Corona, a $20 box of crawdads and a skull stick. They sprawled lazily on the dock all afternoon, drinking beer and mostly ignoring the crawdads, which sat on the engine cowl of Mary’s boat. The reporter, trying to work up the courage to suck, broke one of the crawdads in half, dug out the tail meat and ate it, then squeezed the head over the edge of the boat into the river. Mustard-colored juice spurted out of the decapitated crustacean. He squeezed another head, and black juice squirted out. The reporter’s stomach turned.
“Just suck it,” said the photographer. “Don’t look at it. Just suck it. That’s what I do.” She broke a crawdad in half, placed its head in her mouth and sucked and squeezed like she’d been doing it all her life. “The juice is the best part.”
The heat became unbearable, and everyone took a dip in the river to cool off, hanging on to the ladder on the back of the boat to keep from being swept away by the current. Some of the larger cabin cruisers began making passes at Laurie’s dock, requesting permission to land. Laurie was tired of telling them to shove off.
“I hate the boat people,” she explained in rapid staccato after one such intruder was turned away. “The Harley-Davidson people are nice, I’ve never had any trouble with them. The boat people think they’re better than everyone else. They’re rude. They think I should let them dock here for free.”
The boats converging on the dock were part of a surge of people that rose with the temperature throughout the afternoon. At the hottest point of the day, automobile traffic in Isleton came to a standstill. Main and Second streets were packed with people from one end to the other. The 15th Annual Isleton Crawdad Festival had achieved critical mass.
As if on cue, Forty-wonderful got up from the dock, slipped some shorts on over her swimsuit, and walked back to the festival. She squirmed her way through the sweaty, overheated crowd until she reached the National Bank of Bayonne at the end of Main Street. A circle had opened up in the crowd in front of the bank, and half a dozen men in red union suits were holding court from the balcony, clutching handfuls of beaded necklaces and shouting at the women who passed beneath them. Forty-wonderful stepped inside the circle, and one of the men called down to her.
“Show us your tits!”
“Is this what you want to see?” she said, facing up toward the balcony with her mischievous eyes and gently easing her left breast out of her suit top. On the balcony, eyes widened. Beads and applause rained down upon her. “Or is it this?” She eased out the other breast, and proudly thrust them both toward the balcony. The crowd around her roared. She took a confident bow and collected her beads.
“It’s all good,” she said.
Seven long seconds passed between the time the photographer screamed and the Southwind motor home smashed into the back of the LeBaron. The impact crumpled the car’s right rear quarter panel, propelling the vehicle forward with enough momentum to permit the photographer to pull into the farm road, narrowly avoiding a second collision with the motor home, which screeched to a halt in the middle of Highway 12. Fortunately, for one of the few times that day, there was no oncoming traffic, and the driver was able to pull the motor home and the boat safely to the side of the road.
The photographer and the reporter sat in the car for maybe 20 more seconds, wondering if they were still alive. The reporter lifted the latch on the passenger-side door. Unbelievably, the door opened. He stepped out into the heat. The people in the motor home were wandering around outside their vehicle, shell-shocked. There would be paperwork to fill out. License numbers to exchange. Insurance policies to examine. It was 5 p.m. on Sunday. The 15th Annual Isleton Crawdad Festival closed in one hour.
There was still time to suck.
“You’ve got to be there before it ends,” the photographer said. “Start hitchhiking. I’ll wait here for the police and the tow truck.”
He had just started down Highway 12 toward Isleton, wondering how he would ever walk 10 miles in flip-flops if he didn’t get picked up, when a white Chevy Geo pulled over and its driver offered him a ride.
The driver was in his late-20s, a big kid with a scruffy beard and a Harley-Davidson ball cap. Said he was on his way back to Vallejo after visiting his five kids at his ex-wife’s in Lodi. He hadn’t seen them much since he’d gotten out of prison.
“Where you headed?”
“Isleton, to the Crawdad Festival,” the passenger said.
“Oh man! Was that this weekend? I missed it again!”
They reached Isleton at 5:45. A large crowd had gathered in front of the Hotel Del Rio; motorcyclists were blasting up and down Second Street. Garbage littered the streets; crushed crayfish shells had dried up, leaving a powdery pink residue on the sidewalks. The Chamber of Commerce types were already starting to clean up the streets as stragglers made their way out of the festival.
He got to the crawdad shack just before it closed. The smell of cayenne pepper still filled the air. A small line had formed by a man standing beside the shack. The man was holding out free samples of crawdads on a paddle board. The reporter grabbed one of the samples.
He looked at the crawdad in his hand. He wondered what sex it was. It could have been male. It could have been female. He tore it in half, and placed the head in his mouth. He sucked as he squeezed the head. Warm, spicy brine exploded in his mouth. It tasted like the ocean. The feeling of warmth continued to expand into his sinuses. That was all there was to it, all you had to do.
Just suck it.
He walked back the way he came, to Laurie’s house on top of the levee, hoping to find a ride back to the city. Mary and Forty-wonderful were gone, out spreading the ashes of their former lovers on the waters of the California Delta. Laurie was there, though, sitting on her porch with a spyglass, watching the last of the traffic leave town. “Sure, I’ll give you a ride,” she said, peering through the telescope at a tow truck pulling a black Chrysler LeBaron that had stopped in the street in front of her house. “Uh-oh, looks like another one got towed.”
It was the photographer, of course. The reporter climbed into the truck, and they took the poor, battered LeBaron home.