The first cousin I met was Stephen, who scooped a crawfish out of a giant warming tray and held it up to show me: “Just snap off the head,” he said, demonstrating as he spoke. “Peel back the shell, and pop the meat in your mouth.”
I tried one. Then another. Easy.
It was my first visit to New Orleans, my first encounter with my boyfriend’s Southern family, and, at age 26, the first time I really felt like a foreigner.
My mother-in-law grew up in an elegant home on St. Charles Avenue with leaded glass doors and a winding staircase. Her mother was born in tiny White Castle, Louisiana, a generation away from Eastern Europe, a generation ahead of my family, which settled in Detroit and is solidly Midwestern.
My introduction to crawfish took place nearly 20 years ago, at a family reunion marked by midnight trips to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and coffee, and a brunch buffet of finger sandwiches, grits and gumbo, not the bagels and lox I had expected.
I felt like I had landed in another country.
David’s youngest cousin, the fourth in a line of men named Ben (Ben, Ben Jr., Ben III and Ben IV), advised me on sno-ball flavors. I had never known Jews who named their children “junior.” I had never eaten a sno-ball – shaved ice topped with sticky syrup. It wasn’t a snow cone, exactly, but something finer-textured and more intensely flavored. “Are you two lovebirds?” Ben asked, skipping alongside us on the way back to our hotel.
Less than two years later, Ben was a ring bearer at our wedding. A few months ago, he returned from Afghanistan. And in April, David and I will travel to New Orleans for our first trip to the city alone – for Jazzfest, for my birthday.
This October we’ll celebrate our middle son becoming a bar mitzvah. Saturday night, when family and friends come to our house for havdalah and dinner, we will serve doberge cake – half lemon and half chocolate, our family’s favorite – from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans.
First slice goes to the bar mitzvah boy. Next slice to his grandmother. The rest is up for grabs, cousins first.