There appears to be hope for some of our quirkier habits as Mobilians may persevere despite the often suffocating snarl of government red tape.
For the past couple of years two rites of spring have been endangered by seemingly nonsensical rules and regulations that had pretty much (rightly) been ignored for years. And while one of these grand pursuits appears on the verge of being ratified by none other than the Legislature and governor of the great state of Alabama, the other will have to go back to operating with a wink and a nod in order to survive.
Of course I’m talking about the local traditions of sitting on sidewalks drinking alcohol and cooking free crawfish on those same sidewalks to serve to bar patrons. The matter is obviously a bit more complex than that last sentence might indicate. Anytime you’re talking about ditch lobsters, open flames, boiling water, metal chairs, booze and state regulations, things are bound to be complicated.
First to the seemingly simpler of the two — sitting and drinking on the sidewalk. As the restaurant and bar scene has blossomed in our fair burg, so too has the proliferation of outdoor patios where one might wet one’s “whistle.” Some of these dining establishments and watering holes are not lucky enough to possess a “built-in” place for patrons to enjoy libations in the sunshine, and have set up makeshift “patios” on the sidewalks in front of their shops. They have found this to be an easy way to increase their total number of tables without all the hassle and expense of building on.
Of course this natural progression of sidewalk dining met with some initial grousing. Some have felt the extra seating impedes the sidewalk, and others may prefer that larger, clearly defined deck areas — such as those big wooden beauties gracing Moe’s BBQ and Heroes Sports Bar — be the norm. But leave it to our old friends at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to kick thing up to a more ridiculous level. Never forget, this is the agency that made the Zebra Lounge put pasties on the nipples of tribeswomen in a jungle mural on its walls, so they have a solid history of taking things too far.
Last fall the ABC gang began cracking down on a years-old regulation that meant those restaurants and bars with homegrown outdoor seating areas could no longer serve alcohol to customers. Remember? They decided to start enforcing this right before the big TenSixtyFive festival downtown, getting everyone in a big tizzy about whether outdoor drinking would be legal or not. Good times.
So as it’s stood, thirsty people who are at one of those places without a clearly defined patio area now have to get up and walk inside to order a drink. This is an outrage of the first order — obviously — and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to respect ourselves as a city full of drunks with this kind of inconvenience hindering the natural flow of alcohol to our livers.
Fortunately State Rep. James Buskey recognized this silliness and got a bill passed through the state Legislature allowing restaurants and bars within an entertainment district to serve alcohol on sidewalks or public rights of way adjacent or connected to their buildings. At last check the bill was sitting on the Luv Guv’s desk (hopefully in a dry spot) awaiting signature into law. Good work, Rep. Buskey, for sending the ABC sulking back to their headquarters so Mobilians can drink on the sidewalk the way God intended.
And speaking of God, one of the sure signs He/She loves us is the existence of crawfish and that someone born years ago was brave enough or hungry enough to take these little guys out of the mud, throw them in a boiling pot of water with the appropriate spices, sausage and other fixin’s, and eat them. I’ve only lived in one place for any significant period of time where boiled crawfish wasn’t an integral part of spring and it was a major reason I moved back to Mobile.
The imbroglio over our traditional crawfish boils started last year, primarily as the result of complaints over whether used crawdad water was being disposed of properly. This bloomed into the Health Department cracking down on sidewalk boils, citing Alabama’s Health Code. Fire code issues have been mentioned as a potential issue, as well.
There still appears to be no answer to this problem as crawfish season moves into full swing. District 2 Councilman Levon Manzie, whose district encompasses the LoDa entertainment area, says he’s even lost sleep worrying about it, as people accuse him, as well as the city, of being behind stopping crawfish boils.
Look, we can’t have our City Council people losing sleep over crawfish boils! It’s a tempest in a crawfish pot. (Man, I’ve been waiting this whole column to write that!) Nobody’s been hurt by a crawfish boil. Nobody’s burned down a building. It’s good for the local economy and for people who need to drink beer.
The solution seems so simple — make establishments that want to have crawfish boils come down to the Health Department and take a class on it, pay 50 bucks for a permit and then get to boiling. If an establishment’s crawfish chef dumps crustacean juice down the storm drains, snatch their license so that particular place loses its boiling privileges without killing everyone else’s good time.
It sounds too easy, so I’m sure there’s some dumb reason it can’t happen. In the meantime, Mayor Stimpson and the City Council have voiced complete support for the boils, so we’ll see how much that means. Hopefully the Health Department can go fight Zika or something and leave the crawfish boils alone.
Let our fair town get back to being a place where you can drink a beer on the sidewalk while enjoying the sweet smells of a curbside crawfish boil, knowing your City Councilman is sleeping like a baby.