Seafood boils are true communal eating traditions that span generations and regions of the country, primarily rooted in the Gulf coastal regions of the south, the Carolinas, and the New England coastal region.
The name is also considered a generic label for the type of meal served at big events, parties, and festivals where seafood is the main dish. What differentiates seafood boils across regions are the types of seafood used in the boil, the kinds of side dishes served with the boil, and the way the seafood is prepared (seafood could be boiled, steamed, baked, or eaten raw). In comparison, seafood boils are similar to fish frys, barbecues, or potluck suppers at churches. They’re perfect to serve at large parties, reunions, or wherever a large group of friends or families gather.
As a matter of fact, a seafood boil can take place anywhere! For a typical boil, all you need are large pots of hot, boiling water, some corn and sausage links, red potatoes, an abundance of shellfish such as shrimp, mussels, littleneck clams, whole blue crabs or Dungeness crabs, and a crowd of people ready for great party—don’t forget the cold beers and white wine too!
While there’s no exact date of origin that we know of to place when seafood boils started, it’s safe to say that with the arrival of Cajun people from Maritime regions of Canada in the 1700’s, one of the culinary traditions they brought with them was the seafood boil. We do know that in 1916, an oyster bake took place in San Antonio, Texas is known as the Fiesta Oyster Bake, which was an alumni fundraiser for St. Mary’s University, and an event that continues to this day and draws over 70,000 people.
Seafood boils have always been, and continue to be, a big draw for large, fun, crowd-pleasing parties that are often held on summer holiday weekends at the beach or near a coastline (they’re also super-fun to have right in your own backyard!).
Seasonings used for seafood boils, bakes, and steamers often vary depending on the region. For example, in the Louisiana and Southern Gulf region, they can include crab boil seasoning packets that contain cayenne pepper, hot sauce, salt, lemons, and bay leaves. Or, in some locales, Italian salad dressing, ketchup, or a mix of both is preferred. In the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay region, Old Bay is popular, while in New England, there may be very little or no seasonings used, although beer can be used in the boiling liquid.
The Regional Rundown on Seafood Boils
Louisiana & Southern Gulf Coast
Louisiana Cajun cooking traditions include shrimp, crab, and crawfish boils, which are popular throughout Louisiana and also along the Gulf South region. Of all the seafood boils, crawfish boils are the most popular and closely connected to Louisiana. Crawfish boils are often held as major fundraisers for churches and organizations during the spring season. Backyard and park crawfish boils can pop up anytime between April and June, and local tradition involves eating crawfish and crabs without any tools (no shell crackers or picks!), which might seem like a test of strength and endurance to some!
South Carolina & Georgia
In the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina, one of seafood cuisine history’s longstanding seafood boil traditions comes from Charleston, South Carolina where Frogmore Stew is a local delight. As it goes by a number of different names: Beaufort Stew, Beaufort Boil, or Lowcountry Boil, its name is more commonly known as Frogmore Stew, which is taken from the small town of the same name on St. Helena Island, near Beaufort, SC. The Lowcountry boil of the southeast coast is an equivalent to a clambake in New England.
The boil itself is comprised of boiled shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes. Other special ingredients and seasonings are often added to the seafood boil that makes it distinctive to the region, plus it’s easy to make in large batches to feed a crowd.
In general, large social gatherings around seafood boils in coastal Georgia and South Carolina revolve around shellfish. The boils are very similar to a Louisiana seafood boil with respect to the ingredients used: shrimp, corn on the cob, sausage, red potatoes, and sometimes ham. Although South Carolina boils tend to be on the milder side of taste than the Louisiana version.
South Carolina’s Lowcountry Boil is likely to include some of the flavor and food influences from Louisiana contributed by the ethnic groups that were and are an integral part of the Gulf coastal region: French, Spanish, African, and the Caribbean.
The Mid-Atlantic & Chesapeake Bay
With an abundance of blue crab, Chincoteague oysters, and clams, the Maryland Crab Feast is a long-standing event that appeals to small groups of friends. In this region, you’ll find crab houses (or crab shacks) around the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Not surprisingly, because of the South and Mid-Atlantic boundary, you’ll often find some shared cooking traditions.
A seafood boil in the Mid-Atlantic region is not considered a “boil” in the same sense as in the southern and southeastern regions but is more of a “Steam” in terms of the cooking method. Crab pots are filled with a couple of inches of water or beer mixed with vinegar and heated to boiling. The crabs are placed in a fitted basket over the steaming mixture and steamed until they’re ready to serve (only the liquid really boils).
For the crab feasts served in the region, you’re likely to find coleslaw and corn on the cob as accompanying side dishes, along with tables layered with brown paper (or newspaper depending on the preference), wooden mallets, and serrated knives to crack the crabs open for the meat.
The New Englanders
In the region that calls itself New England, which encompasses the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, the variation on the seafood boil up here is the clambake. It’s typically held on the beach, where a sand pit is dug and lined with stones. Using driftwood, a fire is built and allowed to burn itself down, at which point the selected seafood is placed on top of the stones, then covered by a seaweed and canvas tarp. You’re likely to find lobster included on the menu at a New England boil.
The New England clam boil is an alternative that takes less work to put together. Clams, corn, potatoes, sausage, and beer for boiling make up the primary ingredients.
Whatever Region or Style of Seafood Boil
So, no matter where you find yourself enjoying a seafood boil, bake, or steamer, and whether it contains shrimp, crabs, clams, crawfish, lobster, whitefish, lake trout along with corn, sausage, and red potatoes, if you’re sitting at a long table eating with your fingers and making a mess with a hundred people you don’t even know, you’re bound to have a great time at one of America’s most treasured summertime pleasures!