Another springtime comes, and suddenly I begin to question my identity. As friends gather in salivating droves, pooling money together for group buys of live crawfish to boil and devour by the pound, I find myself on the outside looking in. Being of Cajun descent by both maternal and paternal grandmothers, it is expected that I will eat crawfish, and celebrate with extreme passion the coming of a new crawfish season and the opportunity to boil. To drink beer and peel crawfish is to be Cajun. To have a signature dipping sauce of mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire, horseradish, and Creole seasoning, which is nonetheless remarkably like your neighbor’s, is to be Cajun. To suck heads is divine.
Alas, I don’t really like crawfish. The reasons have varied over the years. At ten it was the texture. At thirty it’s the time and effort required to extract the succulent meat. My mom thinks I tried it at the wrong age. My dad thinks I was switched at birth. Whatever the reason, not eating it has presented a problem for my ability to claim any authenticity as a Louisiana boy. What kind of Cajun doesn’t eat crawfish? But it wasn’t that long ago that being Cajun and eating crawfish wasn’t a point of regional pride. Cajun identity has long been inextricably linked to cuisine, and for both crawfish and the Cajuns who eat them, the road to iconic status wound through a shared history of suppression.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, being Cajun was synonymous with being poor. Typically illiterate, in both English and their native French dialect, Cajuns were viewed as outsiders to the American body politic. Progressive education movements sought to unify and educate children in disparate immigrant communities across the fruited plains in a codified version of American public life. In Louisiana, various versions of the Compulsory Education Act, originally passed by the state legislature in 1916 and updated in 1922 and 1944, nearly killed off the public influence of Cajun culture by attacking its language. Though thoroughly American in the sense that the first Cajuns arrived in Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the mid 18th century (before the founding of the Republic in 1776), their distinctly French language and Roman Catholic faith alienated them from their Protestant, Anglophonic countrymen. In short, they were native to America but nonetheless outsiders in the United States.
Cajun children, who often dropped out of school to assist in harvests and other aspects of their family farms, were forced to attend school. Once there, they were not allowed to speak French, a stipulation that was often enforced by ostracism or corporal punishment. The policy was successful in both its stated claims: educating rural children and nearly eradicating Cajun French as a common language by the end of World War II.
Though cultivated for centuries in the Americas, with records of commercial fishing dating back to the nineteenth century, crawfish were often consumed in private. Crawfish were largely seen as pests by local farmers in the early twentieth century (ironically by the rice farmers who would later cultivate them in droves), and folk accounts abound of rice ponds plagued by a pestilence of crawfish or swarms of them crossing dirt roads and creating hazardous slicks for traffic with their crushed innards. Nobody else wanted them, and their resulting abundance and lack of cost made them an attractive staple to the diet of farm-poor Cajuns.
Throughout the history of its cultivation, crawfish have been used as bait, specifically for catfish. Though biologically not dissimilar to shrimp, crab, lobster, or prawns, it remains somewhat unique in the animal kingdom as a creature that is food to some cultures, and a means to catch food to others. Surely a reluctance to eat what your food eats has something to do with the prevailing “ick” attitudes toward crawfish in recent history. Combined with its tendency to dwell in mud, and its poor yield of useable meat per pound, it’s not unreasonable to see why crawfish may have fallen into poor favor. Shrimp, a fellow arthropod, have dangled from fishing poles as well, but without a similarly checkered past. Crawfish, on the other hand, was seen as a dirty, uncouth, castaway crustacean. By the transitive property, those who ate them were also dirty, uncouth, and castaway.
Honestly, to this day that same “ick” reaction sticks with me. Maybe it’s not over, but I’ve nonetheless found it difficult over the years to really fall in love with crawfish. I do, however, have fond memories of picking through steaming hills of fire -truck- red crawfish at my family dinner table, looking for potatoes and corn cobs seasoned with a spicy boil. My folks, like the rest of Louisiana since the late 20th century, embraced crawfish as a local delicacy, meaning dishes like my mom’s crawfish etouffee were not uncommon around my house. My mom also proudly heralded my Cajun ancestry, reminding me of my lineage through my maternal grandmother Gladys Vincent of Gueydan.
Grams, as I called her, was one of those kids educated not to speak French in the pre-war Louisiana public school system. She married a Baptist from Arkansas, and raised her kids Anglophone. I’ve always marveled that she could understand but not speak to her mother in her own first language when I visited Grams and my great grandmother as a child. Though French was not spoken to her family after her generation, her heritage lived on through the cuisine she passed along to my mother. Post-war economic success would bring Cajun culture and cuisine like my grandmother’s out of the suppressed doldrums of history, and into national prominence and popularity. The primary engine of that success story, like any other in American history, was economics
“Not only was being Cajun no longer taboo, it was widely touted as something great and different about Louisiana.”
Cajuns participated in droves in World War II. Operating as interpreters in the European theater and serving their country proudly. The G.I. Bill they enjoyed as veterans served to educate an even larger number of Cajuns post-war, creating the first blue collar and white collar classes of Cajuns. The influx of money provided an influx of influence to the Louisiana culture at large. By the 1960s, Cajuns enjoyed larger amounts of disposable income, and they spent it on their favorite food, most notably fueling a massive spike in demand for crawfish.
Prior to 1950, most crawfish production came from local fishing markets. Folks along the Atchafalaya Basin caught it, sold it and ate it. Though common, the industry was particularly sensitive to the whims of nature. Crawfish supply ebbed and flowed wildly with the Basin’s tide. By 1960, the larger, wealthier but still crawfish hungry population of Cajuns, now spread throughout the state, demanded a more stable supply. To accommodate the growing and more demanding market, Cajun capitalism begat large-scale crawfish farming and aquaculture. By 1960, 10,000 acres of land were dedicated to the cultivation of crawfish. By 1980, that number ballooned to 120,000.
Starting with the 1968 establishment of the Francophone defense organization CODOFIL, and followed by the Constitution of 1974 which established a right of “linguistic plurality”, Cajuns enjoyed both legal protection and cultural interest from the world at large. Thanks to an oil boom in the 1970s, Cajuns greeted a new crop of visitors and business partners, fomenting a national interest in southern Louisiana cuisine and the Cajun way of life.
Ethnic pride movements sprung around in the United States in the 1970s, influenced by the cultural politicization of phenomena like the Black Power movement. Previously marginalized ethnic groups began asserting their political and cultural rights against a rising tide of sanitized, uniform-white Americanization. Cajuns were no different, responding with characteristic humor and celebratory joie de vivre. Lafayette, widely seen as the capital of Cajun Louisiana, held its first Festivals Acadians et Creoles in 1974. Widely seen on the ground were t-shirts bearing a clenched fist holding a crawfish, a Cajun spin on the famous black pride symbol. In the previously maligned mudbug, Cajuns had found their national symbol.
Crawfish enjoyed the same magnified interest, which boiled over with the Cajun cuisine craze of the 1980s, originally kick-started by the celebrity of Acadiana-born, New Orleans-based chef Paul Prudhomme and his now nearly infamous blackened redfish. Rice farmers with large plots of land found that crawfish could be readily added to crop rotations, ramping up production to unprecedented levels. In 1978, 25.6 million pounds of crawfish were sold, totaling $14.3 million in gross sales. By 1988, 107 million pounds of crawfish were sold, grossing $42.6 million. While production levels peaked at around 110 million pounds annually, prices have continued to rise, reflecting a skyrocketing demand. Consider that from 1970 to 1990 Louisiana’s population grew by only 600,000, and you have yourself a bona fide craze.
While the crawfish industry is undoubtedly a powerful engine of economic change in Louisiana, accounting for $300 million of the gross domestic product, it has more importantly emerged as a ubiquitous symbol of southwest Louisiana pride. What was a food of necessity, is now a luxury item enjoyed by rich and poor alike. Generations of Louisianians, have grown up with Mary Alice Fontenot’s illustrated Clovis the Crawfish, danced to Cajun bands at the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, and eaten armadas worth of crawfish boat bread bowls at Festival International de Louisiane. Crawfish boils are the most visible symbol of the Louisiana way of life and have evolved from backwater family dining to a weekend routine from February to June each year.
For my part, I can’t say I mind not eating crawfish, even if it does result in some suspicion and derision on the part of my friends. In my own weird way, I still love it and what it represents. Come each spring I will get an invitation to dozens of crawfish boils. I will accept them and attend willingly, though I will politely decline my place at the newspaper-clothed table. I will sort through bright red heaps of crawfish shells in search of boiled potatoes, garlic, or the chance at a spicy sausage. I may not leave full of crawfish, but I will leave full of pride.
Known somewhat lovingly as the mudbug, even by those who devour them by the pound, crawfish have a dirty reputation. As bottom-dwelling, omnivorous, swampy carrion eaters, it’s an understandable description, but it doesn’t seem to discourage the more seasoned crawfish eaters from enjoying every part of the Cajun crustacean.
Still, not everyone can stomach the gritty, swampy flavor from fresh-caught crawfish. Thus, at your average backyard boil, you’ll often find a mass of crawfish soaking in an ice chest full salt and water. Locals call the process “purging”, a home-brewed method for cleaning live crawfish before boiling them alive into a delicious ruby red.
Like most home-remedies though, the efficacy of the procedure is a matter of myth. While many swear by the technique, research conducted by the LSU Agriculture Center demonstrated that the process does little more than remove superficial mud and debris from crawfish shells, and doesn’t really deserve to be called “purging”. The step is still generally recommended as a salt less rinse when boiling at home, so long as the crawfish are exposed to flowing oxygen. Just don’t think of it as a thorough cleanse.
The real-deal-Lucille way to purge crawfish is done at the commercial production level, and the results have created a high price demand for what folks around town call the connoisseur’s crawfish.
The primary goal of commercial purging is to stimulate an evacuation of the crawfish digestive tracts, ridding the live animals of unsavory internal waste particularly the yellow sandy grit that can make a lot of folks squeamish. Boilers who purge, like Hawk’s in Roberts Cove or Cajun Claws in Abbeville, either soak or spray their hand-selected crawfish in currents of fresh water for up to 48 hours, while depriving them of a food source. The starvation allows the crawfish to cycle through their digestive tracts, eliminating 70% of internal contaminants into the water’s flow. The result is a clean, fresh tasting tail meat, with none of the intestinal mess, and a yellowish rather than green tint to the tail fat. Much more appetizing.
Crawfish, like lobster, crabs, and other crustaceans, are often eaten in their whole form. In boils, they are dropped live in seasoned boiling water, dumped onto picnic tables lined with newspapers, cracked open by diners, and eaten without any butchering or processing. Whatever internal state the crawfish was in prior to its mortal plunge is what ends up in your pile, making purging an attractive option and one that dramatically affects the final presentation and flavor.
Somewhat labor intensive, the process comes at a higher cost, making purged crawfish a more selective product. The cleanse, while thorough, is not a sanitation necessity, only affecting taste and not the edibility of the crawfish. Unpurged crawfish are not any less safe to eat, some just argue that they don’t taste quite as good. Once the crawfish is in the pot, purged or unpurged, how the delicacy is properly seasoned, served, or accompanied is a matter of fierce debate.
Dickie Breaux has probably told the story a thousand times. But with each retelling there remains something mysterious about the origin of crawfish étouffée. As a Breaux Bridge culinary legend, and owner of storied Cajun restaurant Café Des Amis, he’s often called upon as a keeper of crawfish lore. It’s tough to be an expert on something carried on almost purely by oral tradition, especially when that oral tradition has been copied erroneously thousands upon thousands of times like a decades-long game of recipe “telephone”.
Crawfish étouffée doesn’t come from a recipe in the way other folk staples like biscuits or shepherd’s pie do. It’s a description of a method of preparation, like roasted pork or barbecued chicken. Étouffée, translated from French, means “smothered”, and listening to Dickie walk through his signature tale for the thousandth time you get the sense that’s all there is to it. Crawfish étouffée is just crawfish that has been smothered rather than grilled, fried, braised, poached, or baked. It could just as soon be shrimp or catfish.
But smothered, in this sense, means smothered in the fashion of Cajun cooks, in particular Aline Champagne, niece of Mulate Guidry of Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant fame, and possibly the only consistent apparition in the legend. That original smothering, according to Breaux, was a simple and rich one made with crawfish tails, butter, onions, bell pepper, and crawfish “fat”. The fat, which is actually liver and not technically fat, is the ambrosia of mythological Cajun cooking. Its succulence is the allure of crawfish meat itself, and is the primary ingredient missing in most contemporary recipes. Grocery stores sold it in abundance in the early 20th century until its commercial sale was outlawed by mid-century, but those patient enough to peel their own tails can still reap the benefits.
As Mr. Breaux’s legend goes, Aline ran the Rendezvous Restaurant on the Henderson highway outside of Breaux Bridge and served a wide selection of Cajun favorites, most notably those featuring crawfish. In the 1940s, crawfish weren’t widely eaten publicly, though in Breaux Bridge, later to be called the “Crawfish Capital of the World”, it was a daily staple while in season. Martin Begnaud, a banker from Lafayette, followed his nose through the swinging saloon doors into Aline’s kitchen and asked her what she was doing. “Mais, justement étouffée mes ecrivisses,” she replied. Or in English, “I am simply smothering my crawfish tails.” Mr. Begnaud tried the dish, loved it, and returned the following week with ten of his employees, each ordering crawfish étouffée. The rest, as has been said a thousand times, is history.
As time has rolled on the story has gotten more varied in the telling, and the dish more complex in the making. Some say Aline inherited her technique from crawfish courtbouillon (a tomato based seafood stew) made at the nearby Hebert Hotel in the 1920s, and adapted it to her needs and means. Today, restaurant and home étouffées only hover around the original four ingredient “recipes”, perhaps striving to make up for the difficult to obtain crawfish fat. Some include heavy creams, others Creole-ify it with tomatoes, and overall the finish is thicker and more stew-like than the original. Still, crawfish étouffée owns a place as one of the most iconic dishes in Louisiana food lore. And like its cousins, its legend is only growing.
Counting the ways crawfish can be prepared can read like Bubba Blue’s monologue from Forrest Gump. Personally, I prefer to think of Harlan Pepper naming nuts in Best In Show, but the effect is more or less the same: There are a lot of ways to make crawfish. It’s a crustacean, after all, so most of the basic methods available to preparing shrimp, crab, lobster, and prawns are applicable to crawfish. You can boil them, batter and fry them, serve them in creamy sauces, on po boys, in casseroles, bisques, soups, and boudin. But that only scratches the surface and with the more obvious fare.
Traditionally, of course, we think of crawfish boils and étouffées as the twin pillars of crawfish preparation. But around Lafayette, folks have found even more creative ways of enjoying crawfish, perhaps none more popular than the crawfish enchilada. It seems simple at face value. You take a tortilla, stuff it with crawfish and cheese, snap your fingers, shout “ole’” and holy guacamole you got a crawfish enchilada. Places like Prejean’s near Carencro, George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog Café in Lafayette, and Paul Prudhomme’s haute-Cajun outpost K-Paul in New Orleans, take the simple principle to transcendent heights.
From a culinary standpoint, the marriage of Mexican spice and Cajun flair is ordained by the Almighty. The common point, flavorful heat, creates an obvious pivot point between the two peasant food traditions. Creams, cheeses, mornay sauces, Creole tomato chutneys, the Cajun trinity, cumin, red pepper, whatever enchilada topping or filling you choose, the result is more or less the same: heaven. Try it at home, tucked between sides of corn maque choux (a buttery, spicy Cajun creamed corn) and Spanish rice a la Blue Dog and you’ll discover the instant harmony of the pairing.
While crawfish enchiladas have popped up on restaurant menus around Acadiana in some form or another since the 1980s, those charting a course through south Louisiana’s spring festival season have been wise to catch Bon Creole’s nearly infamous crawfish and spinach “boat”. While technically a New Iberia establishment, the festival favorite has developed a cult following in Lafayette during April’s Festival International de Louisiane and October’s Festivals Acadiens et Creoles. Armadas of the hollowed-out bread bowls stuffed with crawfish tails and spinach treading cream sauce take over the food courts at both of Louisiana’s iconic festivals. The concept is novel, but the flavor is classic: hearty Cajun soul in a bistro presentation.
Perhaps the versatility of crawfish as a protein comes from its size and mild buttery flavor. Though prices over the years have risen, it’s still relatively cheap for a crustacean, making it an easy choice for chefs looking for an update on tired dishes. But more importantly, adding crawfish to a dish immediately ties it to Cajun culinary roots. As a cuisine, Cajun food has traditionally been a venue for making the most out of a little. Over the years, as our insulated cultural bubble popped, more ingredients and ideas have become available to Cajun foodways, and Cajun foodways have expanded to include a new world of food language and flavor. The humble crawfish has lead the way.
There’s a ritualistic and sacred alchemy to the entire process of boiling crawfish. The table is the altar, the newspaper the vestments, and the crawfish the succulent sacrifice. Boil seasoning spices the air like incense, and the acolytes gather around the ruby red pile, imbibing their heady drinks (usually cheap and abundant beer) and preparing their part in the ritual with a gnostic mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire, creole spices, and hot sauce.
Crawfish dipping sauce is a condiment of mysterious origin. While ubiquitous at crawfish boils around Acadiana, it’s a subject of curiosity and even derision elsewhere in the state. A cursory request for personal recipes will render many variants, most of which resemble the traditional European cocktail sauce known as Marie Rose sauce. The base is nearly always mayonnaise, pinked with ketchup in varying proportion, spiced with a creole seasoning blend of choice, with similar discretion afforded the inclusion of the diner’s favorite hot sauce.
This element of the ritual is polarizing. If boiling crawfish is the national religion of Louisiana seafood eaters, then the presence of the sauce separates the faithful from the heretics, depending on which side you’re on. To be sure, there are moderates who straddle both camps, opting to mix a sauce for the benefit of the stray potato, corn cob, or sausage link. But there are many who swear that the use of sauce is a cover up for poorly seasoned crawfish.
Anthony Arceneaux, owner of the Robert’s Cove crawfish boil mecca known as Hawk’s, claims his mother is responsible for the original sin, though he may not use that terminology. The Arceneauxs are innovators in the world of restaurant crawfish boils, establishing Hawk’s as one of the first successful boiled crawfish restaurants in Louisiana, as well as one of the first purveyors of purged crawfish.
Before opening Hawk’s in 1983, the Arceneauxs ate crawfish as a family staple. Anthony’s little sister didn’t like the taste, so his mother whipped up a quick batch of sauce with what she had available in the fridge. The result was a proprietary mixture of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and Worcestershire that Hawk’s sells by the bucketful, making 55 gallons of the stuff weekly. Consider that Hawk’s purged crawfish is touted among the best in the world, and it erodes the notion that the sauce is only for bad crawfish or bad Cajuns.
No matter what your position on the hot button issue, the fact remains that the sauce is an everyday presence at boils. Plenty of crawfish dabblers use it to cool the heat from especially spicy batches, and still others keep it on hand for a flavor variety, dipping one out every five tails or so into their sacred concoction. Like any religious practice, everyone does it a little differently, guarding their secrets closely or boastfully claiming their recipe to be the best. Store bought brands like Wow Wee Dipping Sauce grace the shelves of stores across the South, and sales of Raising Cane’s signature dipping sauce increase during crawfish season (though they claim no immediate inspiration from the crawfish sauce phenomenon). Sauce has become big business, so love it or hate it, the sauce is gonna be on the table.