Flattened by grief and too numbed to think about cooking, seafood boils were my meal of choice for a stretch of weeks in the fall of 2023. Once I stopped pretending I had the capacity to formulate a sentence, I’d collapse back into bed, scrolling on my phone for that night’s food delivery.
Each time I ordered a seafood boil, my selection was ritualized: shrimp with the heads still on, snow crab legs, corn on the cob and extra boiled eggs in a super spicy garlic butter sauce. Steamed rice on the side. Double check to make sure plastic gloves are included. Each time I ordered a seafood boil, opening the knot at the top of the clear plastic bag stained with sauce, inhaling the heat which stung my nostrils, I knew I’d made the right choice to whet my appetite.
But even five years ago, easily ordering a seafood boil from a restaurant within close proximity to my home in the suburbs of Stone Mountain, with several restaurant options available, would’ve been a distant reality. I’ve often wondered why. How has a dish so distinct—and deeply beloved—become so ingrained within Atlanta’s food culture, though its roots lay elsewhere?
What’s clear is seafood boils are here to stay—and Atlantans have Black folk from New Orleans to thank for these restaurants.
In a general sense, seafood boils could include a variety of ingredients: andouille or other smoked sausages, mussels, calamari, the standard unpeeled shrimp, lobster, crab legs, red, russet or Yukon gold potatoes, corn on the cob, and boiled eggs.
Historically, however, the seafood boils that have popularized in Atlanta over the last decade are a derivative from the very Louisiana crawfish boils. Throughout Louisiana, crawfish in season are boiled or steamed in a massive stockpot, then splooshed on tarp-like, sturdy brown butcher paper on a kitchen table or picnic table outside in a backyard. Family and friends gather to feast in fellowship, while eating a little of this and a little of that, until their hands are a tired, spice-filled mess from peeling itty bitty crawfish flavored with Old Bay seasoning.
Zella Palmer, endowed chair and director of the Ray Charles program in African-American material culture at Dillard University, thinks there’s a clear explanation. She recalled a talk she gave nearly a decade ago at LSU’s Public Health School on New Orleans culinary connections. Afterwards, a public health professional from Atlanta approached Palmer sharing that they thought chefs from New Orleans who migrated to Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were responsible for shifting the city’s food in an unprecedented direction. It’s a direction with ripples still felt today.
“In New Orleans, we lost 160,000 people who never came back,” Palmer says. “Even when I think about when I evacuated during our last hurricane, I went to Atlanta. How many people decide to stay in situations like that? Especially when you’re there for a long period of time with better job prospects.”
Palmer adds, that for Black people who have long been culinary entrepreneurs dating back to times of chattel slavery, one of the first things we do for comfort, for ingenuity, for sustenance, and even financial security, is to cook. This includes selling plates and doing community fish fries.
The migration of Black people from New Orleans to Atlanta post-Katrina is one slice of a larger chronicle of interregional exchange—whether through sharing our food or talking smack about NFL football team rivalries. It’s in some ways no surprise seafood boils came to Atlanta from New Orleans and took on a culinary life of their own due to the connection Black people have to one another.
Beyond migratory patterns, the proliferation of Cajun-style seafood boils had a life before Atlanta-based the Juicy Crab came along, thanks to the suburban crawl of Joe’s Crab Shack. The beach-themed franchise was founded in Houston, Texas, in 1991, before opening locations elsewhere. As of November 2023, the company operated 30 locations in 12 states, with none in Georgia.
In 2017, several locations of Joe’s shuttered in Georgia, including in metro Atlanta, during bankruptcy proceedings. This hole in the market created space for the Juicy Crab in Atlanta, which swept in and widely popularized seafood boils that were only a small portion of the Joe’s Crab Shack menu.
The Juicy Crab opened its first location in 2015, two years before Joe’s Crab Shack suddenly closed all of its Georgia locations. Optimal timing enabled the Juicy Crab to spread quickly and open more locations, beyond the initial one in Duluth. Today, the Juicy Crab has more than 40 locations, many residing in pockets of Atlanta heavily populated by Black people. In these restaurants, Black culture is at the forefront, turning into after-hour spots with karaoke and live music.
But the Juicy Crab isn’t the only restaurant now specializing in this type of cuisine in Atlanta and the metro area. Around Stone Mountain, there are numerous examples, most with either New Orleans, Cajun, boil, or seafood and the like in the name as an identifier. In the city of Atlanta, The Boiler Seafood became the first Black-owned restaurant of its kind to open in Buckhead. Family-owned and operated Mama Jane Seafood and Creole Kitchen found success in Sylvan Hills with its New Orleans-style seafood boils, especially during crawfish season.
There’s data to support the emergent trend’s popularity, too. “In our role as the largest seafood distributor in the Southeast, we’ve certainly noticed a significant uptick in Atlanta-area restaurants ordering seafood in bulk,” says Brad Yellock, vice president of food service sales for Inland Seafood. Snow and king crab legs, green lip mussels, shrimp and crawfish are top picks for seafood orders, he says.
While seafood boils are embedded within Louisiana cultural lore, it’s easy to see how the dish found its way to Atlanta and why it’s become so popular. Black people are the drivers behind it, many who brought the seafood boil to Atlanta, finding comfort in the dish and its traditions after being displaced from their homes following Hurricane Katrina.
To muse about food, in any respect, is to understand that movement–chiefly migration–and means that dishes can take on a new life by moving from their origin source to other places through people.
Nneka M. Okona is a food and travel writer from and based in Atlanta. She is also the author of Self-Care For Grief, a guide for taking care of yourself while holding loss, and The Little Book of Self-Healing, 150+ practices for healing your mind, body, and soul.