Alabama State Rep. Margie Wilcox thinks she may be able to solve what some have termed “crawfishgate,” a years-long controversy over a health department crackdown on crawfish boils held by local bars and restaurants every spring in Mobile.
Wilcox has said she’ll file two versions of a bill when the Legislature begins meeting again in early April — one applying to Mobile and another covering the entire state — that would prevent health departments from regulating the crawfish boils and similar “celebratory events or customs.”
The potential compromise comes after a back and forth between health officials and local business owners sparked public controversy and culminated in several seafood boils being shut down last year.
In February, a previous agreement between local businesses and Mobile County Health Department officials which would have allowed the practice to continue this year fell through. Multiple venues, including Saddle Up Saloon, announced they had to cancel events over the seafood spoiler.
“Last year the bar industry met with the health department and came to an agreement on how we could cooperatively work within the rules to resume cooking crawfish this season,” the local bar posted on its Facebook page. “Using this agreement, we began marketing our crawfish night weeks ago. Today we find out the Mobile County Health Department has once again called a meeting for next Monday, to change the rules again … I apologize that I have to cancel, once again, our planned crawfish event due to the Mobile County Health Department’s poor and untimely communication of changes to regulations without consideration to business impact.”
State and local health officials have long expressed their concerns boils are many times “exposed to the elements” and leftovers are sometimes poured into streets and storm drains. They also view all crawfish boils on public sidewalks as unlawful, according to previous statements, but it’s possible Wilcox and health officials could reach a compromise on the specifics of legislation making both sides happy.
That’s something that would be welcomed by The Merry Widow’s Roy Clark, who runs a Sunday boil in Mobile and spoke to Lagniappe about the seafood fiasco last year. “There must be a compromise,” he said. “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.”
Clark’s point about the intersection of Gulf Coast culture and crawfish is exactly what Wilcox’s legislation addresses.
A preliminary draft of Wilcox’s bill specifically exempts food distributed by businesses “in association with a regional celebratory event or custom” from health officials’ scrutiny.
It’s still unclear, however, whether the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Mobile County Health Department will support any version of the legislation. But both Wilcox and Mobile City Councilman Levon Manzie, a self-proclaimed “Free the Crawfish” proponent, met with state and local health department officials to discuss the matter as recently as March 23.
For Wilcox, the pro-boil bill is a no-brainer.
“We have been eating crawfish and seafood since before the Spanish came,” she said.