Ian McNulty: As seasons shift, New Orleans seafood traditions answer cravings beyond the table _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Lent signals the unoffical start of crawfish season, as invites to annual boils start arriving.

Here’s one thing about the seasons in New Orleans: They don’t heed the weather.

We have a better chance of a sweaty Christmas than a white one. And Carnival can be balmy or freezing, day to day.

Now I ask you, how are we supposed to arrange some nice satisfying seasonal food cravings when the calendar, the temperature and the particular cultural callings of our region all point in different directions at once?

But here we are at the start of Lent, which brings a different read on the New Orleans appetite and its intersection with the seasons.

Lent is religious. But in New Orleans, Lent is also cultural, in the same way that Mardi Gras is. And on the table, Lent means seafood.

Of course that sets up the old saw about the sacrifice of eating seafood in Louisiana. But there’s more at play than a one-liner. Seafood in New Orleans is delicious. It’s also the food of plenty and often the flavor of community.

To see what I mean, get a sack of Gulf oysters and gather some people who love them. The response is genuine, almost instinctive. Open them on the kitchen table, in the backyard, on the back of the truck. It doesn’t matter. Oysters in Louisiana get people talking and can bring an elemental sense of well-being.

Crawfish season got revving early this year, with batches turning up at some restaurants and markets. But Lent signals its true start, and with it come the annual invitations to backyard boils, fundraisers and cookoffs that usually have as much to do with socializing as stuffing your face.

And Lent does bring people to church to eat, whether they’re of a religious persuasion or not. The Friday fish fry is a draw that knows no denomination. At churches across New Orleans, parish halls, multipurpose rooms and parking lots are transformed into busy community cafeterias, suffused with the aroma of frying fish and filled with people seeking something more than just a take-away supper. A fish fry can inspire a family outing, supply a picnic, motivate an office lunch and otherwise bring people together in a way that an ordinary order of fried seafood won’t.

Carnival is over, spring is on the way and there are many feasts to come. I don’t care what the weather is like; that forecast sounds good to me.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.