He sits with an air of pride at my side. “I was the guy that brought crawfish to the city of New Orleans,” Al Scramuzza stated proudly. “I opened my business in 1949, and in 1950, I brought crawfish to New Orleans.”
Al, the proprietor of the long-running, much beloved restaurant Seafood City, has been boiling crawfish before most New Orleanians even knew what they were. From very humble beginnings, Al worked his way up to become a cultural icon, as well as a hero to anyone who loves eating pounds of delicious, flavorful crawfish every season.
New Orleanians were eating crawfish before Al opened Seafood City; however, it was considered to be a meal that only poor people would eat when they had no other choice. “A lot of people ask me, ‘How did you know about boiling crawfish when nobody else knew about it?’” he said. Al grew up in poverty and regularly supplemented his meals with crawfish, as well as anything else he could come by.
Al’s father left his wife and six children behind in the early 1930s, right at the beginning of the Great Depression. The eldest of his mother’s children became a nun, and his other older siblings were sent to Hope Haven Orphanage. Only Al and one other sibling remained at the family home. The poor family relied on food stamps to get by. He recounted, “We really, really had to hold on to that food because it wasn’t much. I was a low man.”
To try and keep his family from starving, young Al worked as much as he could and found food in strange places. “[Being barefoot all the time], I used to shine shoes during the daytime, sell newspapers at night, and try to go to school the next day. A lot of days, I would skip school and get some crabs and shrimp at the French Market,” Al explained. He wouldn’t buy the seafood, though. He would grab whatever creatures fell through the slats of the wooden planks of the docks when the seafood was being transported. He continued, “I’d get underneath that doggone truck with my bucket, and I’d get all those shrimp up, man, and put them in the bucket.” He claimed that he would get about five pounds of shrimp and a dozen crabs that way.
Al knew that he also had to pick up some vegetables for dinner, so he would walk around the produce section of the market, reach his hand into trucks loaded with okra, tomatoes, and potatoes, and steal the vegetables. His mother took his pilfered groceries and made “a gumbo that was out of this world.” He would also take discarded beignets from the car-side service at Morning Call (now Café Du Monde) that young lovers would never finish because they were too busy necking to eat their treats.
Eventually, when Al turned nine years old, he was sent to the orphanage, too. It was during this time that he learned how to boil crawfish on his own. He and the neighbors would go out crawfish hunting and take them back to the neighborhood to boil them. Al explained, “In those days, crawfish was a poor man’s food. In Louisiana, it was considered as a trash food. People did not eat it. But we ate it. Folks would go out in the neighborhood into the swamps and catch six sacks of crawfish and they’d bring them. We’d make a concoction of seasonings, peppers, and spices—whatever we wanted to put together. We’d boil the crawfish, and the aroma would be all over the neighborhood. People would come from blocks and blocks away with their pots and pans, and they’d bring some home.”
Still, crawfish didn’t catch on as a delicacy until after Al opened his first business. He was released from the orphanage in his mid-teens, and he eventually went into the military. After being discharged in his early 20s, Al opened Broadview Seafood where he sold boiled seafood. Crawfish, his childhood staple, wasn’t on the menu just yet.
One fateful Friday morning, Al was approached by a Cajun man who was trying to sell crawfish to the restaurant. Al remembered, “This Cajun came by with an old vegetable truck with about 30 sacks of crawfish. He pulled right up and said, ‘You look like you have a pretty good location to sell these things.’ He came from out in the country; people in New Orleans didn’t know about it, but he did have a few customers.”
Al bought the man’s crawfish, not knowing how people would take to them. But after learning from Al how to boil, season, and eat the creatures, his customers were hooked. The man kept returning to Al to sell him however much he could, but the Cajun man couldn’t provide Al with the dozens of sacks he needed every day. Al decided to find out where the guy was sourcing his crawfish, so he followed him down to Cajun country one day to find the fisherman. Al spotted the Cajun man speaking to a fisherman, and he walked up to the fisherman and offered a better deal than the Cajun man was giving him. He also asked the man to provide him with the names of other fishermen he could use, and Al finally had more crawfish than he could handle. Al moved his business to the corner of Broad Street and St. Bernard Avenue and renamed it Seafood City.
He advertised the new food by paying kids to dangle crawfish from fishing rods for passing cars to see. People were intrigued by crawfish, but had no clue how to cook them. He said, “I started running a rigorous campaign teaching people how to eat crawfish, how to peel crawfish, how to boil crawfish. Notwithstanding, I was still getting rid of all these crawfish, and a lot of people still didn’t know what to do with them.” For decades he taught the citizens of New Orleans every aspect of crawfish cuisine with his campaign for decades, through TV morning shows and public appearances.
At his 90th birthday party at Melba’s Restaurant, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser presented him with the inaugural Seafood Champion Award. Nungesser said of Al’s contribution to New Orleans cuisine, “Al Scramuzza was and still is a staple in the Greater New Orleans area for fresh, local Louisiana seafood. His dedication to promoting and championing Louisiana seafood since he opened Seafood City is insurmountable.”
Al still won’t divulge his secret recipe for his famous boil, but his spirit lies in every single batch of crawfish that gets cooked.