LOUISIANA: ‘Tis the Season for … Crawdads, AKA Mud Bugs

Don’t Leave Louisiana without Tasting Crawdads, at Least Once

Text and photographs by Vivienne Mackie

You’re sitting with the sun, warm on your face, sounds of jazz music drifting round the corner.  This is New Orleans, and you suspect there’ll be a taste adventure.  You ask the waiter for suggestions and he says, “Crawdads.”

Market in Louisiana. Photo by Vivenne Mackie.

“Crawdads?” you ask.  You’d been thinking of lobster.  But no, the waiter is insistent; it must be crawdads.

“What are these crawdads?” Well, let me tell you.

It starts with a legend. When the Acadians left Nova Scotia they were  friendly with the lobsters there.  King Lobster decided to follow the Acadians south.  It was a long, hard journey and they all got thin and small, so the lobsters shrunk to about 6 inches.  Because they’d crawled the whole way, they were nicknamed crawdads.  Some people call them toy lobsters, and the flavor really is similar to that of lobster.

Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, mud bugs — by any name these tiny crustaceans are delicious.  Our friend, Gary H, from Louisiana says, “North 0f the Mason-Dixon line the Yankees call them crayfish.  South, we call them crawfish or crawdads.”

Crawfish is called “ecrivesse” in France, and “yabby” in Australia.  Many festivals around Louisiana salute the mud bug with country fairs, blues and zydeco music.  Once considered a food of the poor, it is now a staple of the state’s diverse food culture.

Sign for crawfish. Photo by Vivienne Mackie.

You’ll see crawfish advertised everywhere in New Orleans, its bright red face looking out from billboards and brochures. Cartoons of the sharp-clawed crustaceans parade on souvenir T-shirts and festival posters.  The creature features on nearly every menu from classy restaurants in the French Quarter to no-frills diners near bayous, especially in springtime, and there’s even a series of kids’ books about Clovis Crawfish.

Visitors from around the world are amazed at the variety and volume of Louisiana seafood. Louisiana leads the nation in commercial production of fish and shellfish — oysters, shrimp, crawfish, and crabs.  This seafood, plentiful in the bayous and the Gulf, is an important part of the region’s economy.  Much of the crawfish, a basic ingredient of many tasty Cajun and Creole dishes, grows wild in the freshwater wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin.  But now farmers, especially rice farmers, often flood portions of their land and set wire traps for the crawfish harvest.  One field can produce 1,500 pounds of crawfish a day at the height of the season.

Commercial aquaculture of crawfish started in the 1960’s, where the creatures were farmed in large shallow ponds and caught in semi-submerged steel cages. Farmed crawfish are usually peeled and frozen in a processing factory, but those from local waterways (called Basin Crawfish on roadside stands) are cooked and brought to the table.   Louisianans love crawfish so they eat much of the catch themselves, but they do leave some for export!  In some Acadian restaurants you’ll see a sign ”No Chinese crawfish” because some Chinese importers have tried to flood the market with cheap tail meat. See here for more on a dispute: www1.american.edu/TED/crawfish.htm. However, more has been imported from China recently, and now Spain also wants to export crawfish to the United States.

Going crawfishing is fun for the whole family and kids are good at catching the crawfish, which always seem to be hungry and are easily caught with a piece of meat tied to the end of a of a string. They are found in rivers, bayous, ponds, ditches, and flooded swampy areas.  The season is from early December to mid-July, but the crawfish are best from February to May, when there’s always plenty of water around.

When alive the mud bugs come in many colors—green, yellow, beige, deep maroon—but, when boiled, they are all are a deep red, which they must be for one to extract the meat.  Because they live in mud, they must be soaked in clean salted water for at least 15 minutes and well rinsed.

After catching comes the glorious but messy joy of feasting!

Feasting on crawdads. Photo by Vivienne Mackie.

Crawfish are boiled with a special boiling spice mix, (called crab boil mix and used for both blue crabs and crawfish) usually along with whole small red potatoes and sweet corn on the cob. The spiciness varies according to taste. Gary thinks the best crab boil mix is made by Zatarans in New Orleans.

The most popular casual way to eat them is at a Crawfish Boil, served with plenty of cold beer, and chilled white or red wine, either with friends or in a restaurant.  Visitors can look for signs saying Hot Boiled Crawfish, at a special eatery known as a “Boiling Point,” where servings are on aluminium beer trays set on plastic tablecloths.  Or, try a restaurant that has a special table with a hole in the center where you throw shells and debris.

According to Gary the prices vary, and rise and fall like the stock market. “In a normal year, they start at $2 per pound (alive) at the beginning of the season, and by April you can get them for $0.35 a pound (alive). If you buy them already cooked then they are around $3 per pound.” If you order online, you can find prices as low as $2.90 (true on February 2, 2010 on www.selectcrawfish.com )

At times, the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers’ Association tries to regulate the prices, especially if the prices go too low.  For example, this association, which has 1,100 members (the majority of about 1,600 farmers in Louisiana), voted in 2008 to stop harvesting two days a week in hopes of tightening supplies after a steep drop in wholesale prices.

Crawfish are served “by the order,” usually 5-6 lb per person. They are small, so you need a lot to make a meal. The average size is about the size of a man’s thumb.  Gary tries to put these amounts in perspective. “A local bar here in Hammond, and my favorite hang-out place, called ‘Crescent’, has an annual crawfish boil at the time of the Final Four. They cook 3,000 pounds of crawfish. A typical crawfish boil party here in Louisiana has around 200 pounds.”

The tail meat and the fat and liver inside the heads are the edible parts. Break head and tail apart and suck, peel tail and devein the meat, then “gleefully devour it.  It melts on your tongue, caresses your taste buds, and is ten times better than Maine lobster.” (Howard Mitcham, in “Creole Gumbo and all that Jazz.”) With practice, afficionados can schuck these crawdads with one hand, holding a Dixie beer in the other.

This devouring is messy and the red pepper in the boil mix may burn your hands, but it’s all considered part of the process.  Please remember to wash your hands before going to the bathroom, at strategically placed washbasins in the “boiling points.”

Red boiled and ready to devour, crawdads. Photo by Vivienne Mackie.

The most popular way to eat crawfish is by boiling, but there are other ways to prepare them. World-renowned Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans has a famous Crawfish Cardinale.  Many places serve Crawfish Etouffee (pronounced A-2-Fay), a Cajun dish of crawfish smothered in a delicious dark roux sauce.  Other staple Cajun dishes are Crawfish Stew, Crawfish Jambalaya, and Crawfish Bisque.

In New Orleans, French Quarter “tourist traps” use superlatives like “serving the best crawfish in the French Quarter, in New Orleans, in Louisiana” and have decor with lots of Mardi Gras items featured with an abundance of neon lights. However, the unpretentious places often have better crawfish.

Around New Orleans try these great places:

1) Morton’s, in Madisonville on the Tchefuncte River. This is Gary’s all-time favorite, so he took us there. Servings are suitably huge and messy and the beer keeps coming.

2) Don’s, in Hammond.

In the city of New Orleans try:

1) Acme’s Oyster Bar, 724 Iberville, Telephone: 504-522-5973

2) Mothers, 401 Poydras, Telephone: 504-523-9656

3) Casamento’s, 4330 Magazine Street, Telephone: 504-895-9761 (on the border with the Garden District)

Po Boy shops are good for fast food and sometimes have crawfish. In summer, boiled crabs and shrimp are also popular.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For the history and statistics of crawfish visit: www.crawfish.org.

To purchase crawfish: www.KIcrawfishfarms.comwww.selectcrawfish.com; or www.lacrawfish.com.

For general information on New Orleans visit: www.neworleans.cvb.com, www.crescentcity.com.

Vivienne Mackie may be reached at: vivienne.mackie@gmail.com. Read her blogs: www.viviennemackie.wordpress.com ;  Web Site: www.web.mac.com/vmackie/iweb/VivienneMackieProfile; Writing on Helium: www.helium.com/users/422547.