Peel. Pinch. Suck. Eat.
Most of us know how to get the crawfish from the plate (or tray) to our mouths. Or from the bucket to the boiling pot. And that is, after all, the crucial part. But have you ever stopped to think about how the crawfish got to your supermarket, favorite restaurant, or annual backyard boil in the first place?
I interviewed two crawfish farmers to find what exactly is involved in bringing those tasty mudbugs from "pond to pot," as they say it.
Dave and Patsy Durio are a husband-and-wife crawfish couple who have been in the business for about nine years. They have around 60 acres of crawfish ponds just north of Henderson, Louisiana, which contain a total of approximately 1,400 crawfish traps. Each trap is about two feet tall and a foot and a half wide, and usually holds at least 45 crawfish, or around three pounds (more in warmer weather). This means that during what Patsy considers an average year (their season goes from January through May), they bring in somewhere around 12,000 pounds of the savory crustaceans.
And while that would provide ample crawfish at a boil for around 3,000 of your closest friends (or 10 minutes' worth of crawfish for 1,846 world-champion competitive crawfish eaters), that is actually a relatively small yield. The AgCenter at LSU says that the state of Louisiana produces as much as 150 million pounds of crawfish each year. So, what the Durios manage to cultivate from their ponds is indeed small potatoes (not unlike the spicy kind you mix in with your corn and crawfish). It's a real family-run business. Dave and sons Joey, Jason, and Lee are the only ones who do the fishing, weighing, grading, and bagging, while Patsy drives around to local businesses to sell their alive-and-pinching product and also makes a mean etouffée.
Therefore, the Durios definitely can't keep up with the big-wig crawfish farmers, who use their crawfish clout to control the market and set the going rate one can get for the critters. But that's okay, because Dave and Patsy are all about quality over quantity. "Our ponds are not the best producers," Patsy explains. "But what we get are awesome crawfish. We get big, beautiful crawfish because we're so close to the [Atchafalaya] Basin. We have pretty crawfish."
I visited the Durios' crawfish farm and not only got to see them in action, but also got to take part in the crawfishing process myself.
We drove out to the ponds in something that looked like a cross between a tractor and a golf cart, and was the ideal machine to deal with all that mud. Then, decked out in tall, waterproof boots and rubber gloves, we started the work of harvesting the crawfish traps. The traps had been baited the day before with huge blocks of dry crawfish food that all the crawfish scamper to devour. Branching out from just kitty chow, Purina actually produces this crawfish bait, which they call "Southern Pride Crawfish Food."
The Durios own two boats, known as crawfish harvesters or combines. The boats are small, with just enough room in them for a few people and a few baskets of crawfish (humans are severely outnumbered). The crawfish regularly escape the baskets in the boat and squirm around underfoot. I was constantly worried about squishing them with my heavy, clunky fishing boots. Death by crushing somehow seemed to up the cruelty factor over boiling them alive.
One person drives the boat while another pulls a trap from the water, dumps the crawfish into a basket beside them, replaces the empty trap in the water again, and moves on to the next trap. The whole process is flowing and seamless: the boat is constantly moving while the traps are pulled, dumped, and replaced—one by one—along a long row of traps that run the length of the pond. Every pond has multiple rows of crawfish traps—just how many rows depends on the size of the pond.
On a good day, you'll fill up several baskets of crawfish. On a bad day, you'll end your fishing excursion with half-empty baskets, after having dumped rows of half-empty traps. But either way, after fishing, it's time to grade and weigh your catch. This involves dumping the baskets of crawfish onto a table covered with pipes, called a grading table. The table helps separate the crawfish by size, as only the small ones fall through the spaces between the pipes. If a crawfish remains on top of the grading table, on the other hand, it can be considered good-sized, good quality, and sellable. The crappy little undergrown ones that slip through the cracks are called "peelers."
Peelers are the runts of the litter, the tiny, less-than-a-mouthful crawfish—the ones where the effort of peeling them isn't even balanced out by the meat produced. And unfortunately, a lot of crawfish farmers try to sell these sloppy seconds as if they were the real deal. In other words, peelers are the day-old baked goods, knock-off purses, or refurbished electronics of the crawfish world that they try to pass off as equally good. So, the next time you are served a plate full of peelers, don't jump to the conclusion that it's a lousy crawfish season. Those might just be lousy crawfish.
Patsy gets upset that people are forced to pay the same price per pound whether they're getting big, hearty crawfish like theirs or the itsy bitsy peelers. "I'll go in seafood places sometimes just to see what the crawfish look like," she says, "and I can't believe they're selling that at that price. It's really not fair when we take such good care of our product." The Durios sell their small peelers at a highly discounted price to peeling plants or their neighbors, who use the meat for etouffee and other dishes.
Following the grading process, the crawfish are dumped into sacks that are tied, weighed on a hand-held scale, recorded, stacked, and loaded into a truck for delivery.
Dave and Patsy bring their crawfish to their clients quicker than you can say "etouffee," in order to guarantee the freshest, healthiest crawfish. Just how fast do they get them there? "Maybe about an hour and a half or two hours after they're out of the pond, unless there's traffic," Patsy says. "Nobody else does that." She goes on to explain that many crawfish farmers keep their catch in coolers for four or five days—or Fed-Ex them overnight to New York City—so that by the time they get to the buyer, not all of the critters have pulled through. And nothing says "less than fresh" (or less than appetizing) like a bunch of dead crawfish mixed in with the survivors.
The Durios sell to various restaurants, private customers, and supermarkets such as Winn-Dixie. "That's an experience, going to the Winn-Dixie parking lot and unloading those crawfish," Dave explains. "Going through the store, you must get asked about 10 to 12 different questions: 'Where'd you catch those?' 'Are you selling those?' 'How much are you selling them for?' "Can I have one?' 'When is the free day?'…"
At the end of every season, the Durios and other crawfish farmers slowly drain their ponds, forcing the remaining crawfish to burrow into the mud. Usually having already spawned before burrowing, the aptly named mudbugs chill out in their burrows from around June through October, keeping themselves busy hibernating and watching their eggs grow. The first babies start to appear in November and, Patsy explains, are about the size of a tater tot. But by the end of January, they've already developed into adults and the harvesting begins.
Crawfish are much more sophisticated and elaborate creatures than we give them credit for. For instance, crawfish molt. That means that when they outgrow their exoskeletons, they shed them and grow new ones (a slightly gruesome process that leaves a layer of orange scum on top of the ponds when it occurs). But according to Patsy, the molting schedule of crawfish is based on the cycles of the moon and other such complicated factors.
When I visited the Durios' crawfish farm, I came home with a new pet. She was a young, probably two-month old female crawfish who I named Monica, after the Jazz Fest delight, Crawfish Monica. She lives in an aquarium in my room and entertains me with her crawfish shenanigans. When I am asked how I can bear to keep a pet crawfish and still eat her cousins over rice, I justify it by explaining that I merely do as the crawfish do. They kill and eat each other, too. Though crawfish are usually found in large groups, they are not so very neighborly after all. They normally burrow alone or, at most, as a male-female pair. And when I abducted Monica from the ponds, I wanted to bring home a friend for her as well. But Dave and Patsy assured me that a second crawfish would not provide good company, but rather a good game of "survival of the fittest."
Yes, crawfish are tough critters. They say that the crawfish is the only animal that will stand its ground—with arms raised in a defensive stance—against a speeding freight train barreling down on it. And there's nothing meaner than a hungry crawfish. "At the beginning of the season, the snakes go into the traps to eat the crawfish. At the end of the season, it's just the opposite," Dave says. "The snakes go in the traps and the crawfish eat them."
"And once, a bird stuck his head in the trap at the end of the season. When we picked up that trap, there was nothing left of the bird's head but bones," he adds. "The crawfish had actually grabbed and pulled him into the trap."
Even on their small scale, the Durios devote a lot of time and effort to their profession. They brave alligators and snakes in the ponds. And Dave and his son Joey both already have full-time jobs working in IT, and have to manage to fit about 30 hours a week of crawfish farming into their busy schedules. Juggling both crawfish and computers can get a little hectic. Dave explains, "I'll work my computer job from 6:00 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. I get to the ponds at 4:30 and I meet Joey, who's got the same kind of IT schedule as I do. We're fishing by 5:00; we're getting out of the ponds by around 7:30. By about 9:30, we're dropping off our orders to customers that Patsy has contacted. I'm home for 10:00 and in bed for 11:00." And the next day, he does it all over again. "And I'm 62 years old," he adds.
Despite the hard work and potential danger involved, both Dave and Patsy really enjoy their crawfish universe. Dave loves his day job, but he's really a crawfisherman at heart. "I mean, it's such a different part of my life from the computer stuff. I'm in the cubicle all week, and that actually makes me more tired than doing the hard labor that I do back in the ponds," Dave says. "I'm pulling traps, I'm steering this boat. If I get stuck, I've got to get out; I've got to push the boat. I'm picking up 35-pound sacks of crawfish—last week I did 40 sacks, and I'm not nearly as tired as when I do the computer thing."
"It takes all your life, but it's been an experience. I enjoy it back there in the ponds," Patsy agrees. "It's a time to dump the brain and just be in nature."
Dave plans to retire in about five years, and he and Patsy will move to their house outside Henderson to live year-round, rather than only during crawfish season. He even wants to get extra lights on his boat to be able to fish at night. "Or maybe night vision glasses," Dave jokes. "Then I'll fish more to sell more. I'm looking forward to that."
A tip from the experts: Dave and Patsy swear by Zatarain's Pro Boil for their boiled crawfish. Patsy says to add one and a half containers of the seasoning per sack of crawfish. No salt. After removing them from the boiling water, immediately add a bag of ice and let them soak for 35 to 45 minutes. Juicy crawfish guaranteed!