After more than a year of back and forth between local businesses and state health officials over the legality of the events, a bill explicitly permitting crawfish boils and other food-related cultural events on sidewalks in Mobile will soon become law.

The legislation, originally sponsored by Rep. Margie Wilcox, exempts from state health department regulations “a regional celebration, tradition or cultural event that is designated as such by the city of Mobile,” and specifically says that exempted groups, which will have to apply for the status with the Mobile County Department of Health, “may boil whole crawfish, for public consumption, outside on the premises of the establishment.”

Last year state health officials cracked down on crawfish boils in Mobile, and businesses such as The Merry Widow, Hayley’s and Saddle Up Saloon announced they’d been required to cancel events because of the strict regulations, which prohibited cooking food outside in the open.

“There must be a compromise,” The Merry Widow’s Roy Clark told Lagniappe at the time. “More than anything, I’m saddened that one of the most unique and anticipated traditions of Gulf Coast culture — people of all walks coming together at a watering hole around a boiling pot, being a community — might be purged from our lives because of arbitrary restrictions.”

The new legislation will prevent that purge by giving Mobile County health officials — instead of the state — the power to exempt groups and events from the stricter requirements. Instead, per the law, which awaits Gov. Kay Ivey’s signature, businesses will apply for exemption online through the Mobile County Health Department and then be required to meet certain minimum standards, like planning for waste disposal and having a handwashing station available at the event.

While both state and local health officials asked for some changes to the legislation, the Mobile County Health Department eventually lent its support.

“As always, our aim is to promote, improve and protect the health of those who live, work and play in Mobile County, Alabama,” local health officials said in a statement. “We believe this legislation does not disrupt our ability to achieve that mission. Our sincere thanks for all the hard work put forth by various individual leaders, food industry representatives, local, state and federal food safety officials.”

For her part, Rep. Wilcox says the legislation was successful in protecting something she finds to be part of Mobile’s culture.
“Really my intent was to protect the flavor of Mobile, Alabama,” Wilcox said. “Getting together, sharing food and loving are part of Mobile’s traditions … we have been eating crawfish and seafood since before the Spanish came.”

Wilcox originally introduced two versions of the bill, one that applied statewide and the one focused solely on the Port City, which passed.

“We had bipartisan support for Mobilians eating their crawfish,” Wilcox said.