Sadly, Mardi Gras is over. And as the leftover king cake is growing stale and you must pack away your parade loot and tutus, you can console yourselves with the fact that, at least, it's still crawfish season. And that's nearly as important. In Louisiana, where would we be without crawfish? They are, after all, our state crustacean. Crawfish in all its many forms—from boils to beignets—have surpassed their undying appeal to the palate to become a very symbol of our culture, a $210 million industry, a social liaison, and a culinary staple. But how did these funny little muddy beasties come this far?
Historically speaking, the crawfish didn't have a very glamorous start. They were once considered a "poor man's food" that only the Cajuns—who are often rumored to be willing to eat anything, even that which crawls out of either hole or swamp—would dare consume. And even before the Cajuns discovered that crawfish were worth gracing their mealtime table, folks considered them a pest, an utter nuisance to be killed—and not in order to bring home for lunch. Crawfish are the weird, backwoods cousin to the fancier, more sophisticated lobster. And like weird Uncle Charlie who you're not sure you dare invite to family dinner until you realize he's actually a pretty cool guy, it took a while for crawfish to prove themselves good (and tasty) enough to be allowed to come to supper, joining the ranks of lobster on restaurant menus and for general public consumption. These days, there's a crawfish in every pot, and everyone—from Queen Elizabeth to Herbert Hoover to Brad Pitt—has tried crawfish in one form or another. Nowadays, people live and breathe crawfish. They plan their vacations around crawfish season, their social calendars around crawfish boils. They drive for hours to get their favorite crawfish dish or wait for hours to score the freshest catch. One crawfish-lover from Louisiana (a redundant description, mind you) said, "No less than blood, sweat, and tears will be shed in the quest for crawfish."
It's thanks, in large part, to the Cajuns that we're all eating crawfish today. They used to catch and eat them right out of their backyards. Until refrigeration became more commonplace and more affordable around the 1950s, it was hard to keep crawfish for any period or to transport them to distant restaurants and markets far from their home ponds. So, in the early to mid-1900s, crawfish were a local, and therefore limited, commodity. Nevertheless, folks were already eating crawfish etouffee in Breaux Bridge restaurants as early as the 1920s, though the dish wasn't officially recognized by that name until 1949. It cost $1.50 a plate.
It's often thought that one of the reasons it took so long for the goodness of crawfish to really catch on is because crawfish dishes are extremely labor-intensive to prepare. The little critters are made up of that tough exoskeleton and those big pinching claws called chelipeds. Their coveted tail meat is protected by all those abdominal plates and uropods (tail "flippers"). In fact, only about 14 percent of each crawfish can be used. Therefore, in order to prepare crawfish for mass consumption, it requires a very patient and industrious labor force to get through all the many tough layers to the good stuff underneath. It takes about 30 pounds of whole crawfish to get enough meat out to make etouffee for just four people. And to feed 15, you'd need to peel 200 pounds' worth of live catch. But the Cajuns persisted at their crawfish-peeling endeavors and therefore helped to popularize this beloved arthropod—thanks to both increasing production as well as singing the etouffee-filled praises of the plentiful crustacean.
Crawfish were already commercialized in the first part of the 20th century. As early as the 1930s, peeling crawfish to make and sell canned crawfish bisque was becoming big business. By 1989, the crawfish-peeling industry was at its peak, with 20 different factories dedicated exclusively to mudbug meat extraction within a two-mile radius. As for crawfish farming,
this began in the 1960s with the creation of the first commercial crawfish ponds. There were only about 7,000 acres of these farmable "crawfish condos" at the time. From there, crawfish very quickly managed to claw (or cheliped) their way to the top. And by 2011, the number of acres of crawfish ponds had grown to nearly 190,000. Similarly, while Louisiana brought in approximately 7,265 pounds of crawfish in 1922, by 2012, the state was producing over 100 million pounds.
Along with the Cajuns, there were many other people and related factors who had a hand (claw?) in the crawfish's rise to culinary stardom. Some give credit to the Atchafalaya River, the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the many restaurants serving crawfish, scientific researchers, even the Catholics with their increased demand for crawfish during meatless Fridays and throughout the season of Lent. Al Scramuzza is said to have brought crawfish to New Orleans. Referred to as the "Nabob of Crawdadia," he was a seafood salesman who hawked as many as 150,000 pounds of crawfish weekly in the Big Easy. Paul Prudhomme also helped promote crawfish. Though he was best known as the redfish king, he did help popularize all things Cajun and edible.
Let's now dispel a few crawfish myths and enlighten you with some tidbits of crawfish trivia. Contrary to what you may have heard about what weather leads to an ideal crawfish season, the perfect conditions are, in fact, a dry summer followed by a wet fall then a mild winter. Crawfish are feisty and brave creatures that will allegedly stand up to a speeding locomotive in their path, raising their claws in defense and fearlessly refusing to back down. Their average lifespan is about a year (less if they go head-to-head with a train). Also, though they are often called mudbugs and do frequently burrow in the mud, crawfish actually prefer clear water. They simply dig around in the mud to get food, and as they do, the water gets muddy. Mud is an occupational hazard, not a choice. And speaking of crawfish's food—much like their Cajun brethren, crawfish are said to be willing to eat just about anything. But what do we get when we eat them? Plenty of protein, virtually no fat, and only about 70 calories per three-ounce portion. So, if you skip the cream sauce and avoid the fryer, crawfish are almost as healthy as they are delicious. You probably burn nearly 70 calories just peeling them. But keep in mind, that nutritional info is for plain, straight-outta-the-shell crawfish meat. If you eat them in a bisque, for instance—depending on the recipe, plan to add up to 10 times as many calories and over 50 times more fat. Finally, if you don't need something soft and cuddly that loves you back, crawfish actually make good pets as well.
Crawfish are more than just good food, however. They're also fun and games. Such as live crawfish derby races and peeling and eating contests. They're the stuff of stories, of crawfish lore. Like crawfish crossing the road in a mass migration in 1933, blackening the pavement and blocking traffic for five miles, as people either ran them over or stepped out of their cars to bag hundreds of them for dinner. Crawfish are the things that dreams are made of—and that cities are made of, too. Sometimes quite literally. In 1958, the city of Breaux Bridge was officially named the Crawfish Capital of the World. And Henderson, Louisiana, deemed "The town that crawfish built," was founded in 1934. Back then, a good Cajun man by the name of Henry Guidry (a very good Cajun name) decided to pack up and move his nice Cajun seafood restaurant out of town. A team of hardy mules (perhaps getting in shape to lug carriage-loads of tourists around the French Quarter) dragged Guidry's restaurant all the way from its original location near Breaux Bridge, to the foot of the west Atchafalaya River Protection Levee. Soon this single restaurant grew into the town of Henderson, as hordes of crawfish enthusiasts settled there and quickly set to work peeling and plating crawfish. Before you knew it, Henderson was home to four or five crawfish restaurants, affectionately known as "crawfish inns," that could seat up to 3,000 crawfish-craving patrons at any given time.
There have been crawfish-themed parades, some with live crawfish "throws" being flung out into the hungry crowd. There are crawfish balls, crawfish festivals, and even a crawfish-inspired dance troupe known as the Ecrevettes. Plenty of awards and honors are bestowed in the name of the highly esteemed crustacean, such as those ladies lucky enough to be crowned as Crawfish Queens, or Leon Leo Breaux from Breaux Bridge who, in 1960, gave himself the title of Eternal King Crawfish, to reign unchallenged as crawfish royalty for all eternity. In a coronation ceremony that would outdo even the famous prom scene in Carrie, they poured a bucket of live crawfish over his head. He was wearing a sparkling clean, prom-worthy tuxedo, no less.
The most popular festival revolving around these hard-shelled wonders is, of course, the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. The festival brings in hundreds of thousands of people annually to consume over 30,000 pounds of crawfish by some estimates. In fact, the Louisiana Tourist Commission once reported that the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival is the state's second-largest tourist attraction, behind only Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
And speaking of Mardi Gras, it looks like we've come full circle. Yes, Mardi Gras is over, but crawfish season has just begun. Enjoy it! Have fun at those boils, feast on Crawfish Monica at Jazz Fest, treat yourself to a second plate of crawfish pasta (but beware, some restaurants import their crawfish from China). Pinch and suck until your heart's content. Because crawfish are not just spicy little morsels of freshwater heaven, they're also a way of life. A Louisiana ceremonial ritual. Find your crawfish bliss.
Thank you to Sam Irwin and his book, Louisiana Crawfish, a Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, for all kinds of fascinating crawfish facts.