A POND-TO-TABLE ATTACK OF THE COVETED LOUISIANA CRAWFISH
“How y’all doin’ on bugs?” the customer asks. He wants five pounds of Louisiana’s matchless mud-dwellers, boggy bottom-feeders, the pride of Vermilion Parish. Crawfish. Tanner Choate—sixteen years old and the most dapper dude in the local seafood restaurant industry—like a velvet-rope bouncer, checks his sketchpad with its columns of Cajun surnames and numbers, crunches the data, and affirms, “Yeah, we can fit you in.”
This is Cajun Claws, home to the biggest, cleanest, and spiciest crawfish in Louisiana. Scoring five pounds of the best requires time, patience, and, some might say, the ability to wait for hours while drinking beers with strangers, who by the end of your first bottle are friends. When Cajun Claws devotees inquire about bug availability, aspiring to reserve a spot on Tanner Choate’s list, they are not merely asking to indulge in the rarest of commodities. They are begging to take part in a ritualistic feast, a pore-opening, sweat-inducing miracle of heat and spice, a communal cracking of shells and sucking of heads.
First, let’s consider the crawfish, aka the crayfish, aka the lowly mudbug, a primordial-looking creature that favors the swampy muck. South Louisianians build dishes—étouffées, bisques, gumbos, and savory pies—around their prized tail and, to a lesser extent, claw meat. Better yet, they boil them, by thirty-pound batches, in water spiked with salt, cayenne, black and white pepper, garlic, onion, and lemon. Often vegetables (corn, potatoes, and mushrooms are most common) and various meats (I’ve seen sausages and pork chops) are thrown into the boiling water. During springtime weekends and holidays, backyards across the Gulf South transform into crawfish fiestas, where the contents of boiling pots are upturned over newspaper-covered tables and served on old-school beer trays.
The communal carousing that springs up around the crawfish table inversely mirrors the creature itself. Crawfish are crabbier than their distant crustacean cousin, the crab, and their meat has a more tender and sweeter texture and taste than their close relative, the lobster. Like your high school librarian or that grouchy Midwestern uncle who lives for never turning the furnace on—beneath the fierce and craggy surface of the crawfish, you just know there’s a saccharine center.
In 1922, Ernest Hemingway ridiculed his sparring partner Ezra Pound as having “the general grace of the crayfish.” They might not be able to float like the proverbial butterfly, but the crawfish’s pincers sure can sting. One crawfish expert, who goes by the name Buck, tells me, “if those things were big as dogs, they’d rule the world.”
I, for one, have never boxed a mudbug, but throughout my South Louisiana childhood my brothers and I competed in “crawfish races.” We cheered our hand-picked champions—the winner would be spared the boiling pot—who more often crawled sideways or backwards than towards the finish line. On weekends, with the neighborhood kids, we’d scramble around ditches to coax crawfish out of their half-foot-tall mud-chimney homes. Looking more like Transformers than Transformers ever did, our captives played the part of the rampaging monster in our playtime battles. I’d watch adults slurp them down by the sack at get-togethers, but I was cautious to try them myself. Mastering the art of peeling the tails to extract the meat is as much a Louisiana childhood rite of passage as learning the alphabet. By the time we’re teenagers, we’ve learned that sucking the delectable and spice-saturated yellowy-orange “fat” (in actuality, the pancreas) out of the head makes you a crawfish-eating connoisseur.
Though crawfish restaurants today dot the Louisiana landscape, it’s only in my lifetime (I’m thirty-two) that boiled bugs have proliferated and risen to a professional culinary art. During the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927, many Cajuns rejected the Red Cross’s suggestion to eat more crawfish to stave off starvation. Back then, mudbugs were designated a Lenten-only dish in Catholic Louisiana. But by the 1970s, farm-raised crawfish had overtaken the wild-fished tonnage. Restaurants in Henderson and Breaux Bridge—“The Crawfish Capital of the World”—gained fame soon after.
In 1996, Tanner Choate’s parents, Donni and Jodi, opened Cajun Claws in Abbeville. Each business day, though the doors to the bar open at four o’clock and the dining room starts serving an hour later, customers begin packing the parking lot hours earlier. They drink cans of domestic beer, share crawfish stories (“Last year they were three bugs to a pound!”), and pray that they’ll get a chance to order a five-pound tray of Cajun Country’s finest. Many will wait up to five hours to get their bugs.
LOOKING FOR BUGS
It’s a humid, gray Louisiana early morning. Seventy-something degrees the day after Thanksgiving. Typical weather, though the early-winter warmth, the airy wetness, manages to surprise most everyone. The last of the sugarcane trucks roll down Highway 14, hauling the season’s last stalks to processing. Photographer Denny Culbert and I meet Donni Choate in the gravel and mud parking lot behind Cajun Claws. You don’t talk about three things around these parts, he tells us: “Politics, religion, and don’t try to predict crawfish season.” But the genius behind Cajun Claws, our crawfish guide for the day, breaks rule number three right away.
You don’t talk about three things around these parts, he tells us: “Politics, religion, and don’t try to predict crawfish season.”
A productive mudbug season has most everything to do with the weather, and Choate has high hopes for this year’s catch. “We started flooding the fields in mid-October,” he explains as he steers the over-sized pickup truck along the levees that divide the rice fields—foot-deep, natural ponds, really—into multi-acre rectangular plots. There the crawfish eat just about anything: plant matter, animals, each other. Attracted to even the smallest amount of blood in the water, they are Jaws with claws.
In these ponds, rice and crawfish exist in a perfect symbiosis, a “foodweb system,” to use a term from aquaculture. Farmers plant rice in the spring; by the end of fall, they pump water in from adjacent ditches, bayous, and canals, filling the fields up to near the levee’s top like a bathtub. Crawfish are generally already in the fields, while others migrate during and after the deluging process. Always, more crawfish must be introduced into the fields to spawn and mature by the start of the following spring.
It’s been a productive few months thus far, “a good rainy season,” in Choate’s judgment. The next day farmers will lay out 1,500 crawfish traps over 225 flooded acres here at Mouton Cove, a fifteen-minute drive due south from Abbeville. The “holdover crawfish” stock—the name for those hard-shell stalwarts who remained from the previous season—in the ponds are plentiful. Crawfish like it cold (but not freezing), wet, and communal. Despite their sometimes hostile behavior, crawfish will occasionally migrate in packs numbering into the hundreds of thousands. My boxing coach, Charlie Gallagher, remembers in the spring of 1971 spotting a limitless battalion of wild crawfish marching lockstep down a rural highway outside New Orleans. Word spread quickly, and the roadside soon filled with men shoveling crawfish into the trunks of their cars, enough bugs to feed the neighborhood. Because of suburbanization and damage to local waterways system, such mass migrations are seldom witnessed these days.
Farmed crawfish, conversely, have proliferated—fishermen harvested over 110 million pounds in 2011 (compared to 14 million pounds of river-caught wild crawfish). We accompany Choate to his processing plant, a pair of corrugated metal warehouses in Forked (pronounced Fork-id) Island, a community so minuscule that its location confuses even Google Maps.
Choate has been purchasing crawfish here for thirty-two years. He takes pride in buying bugs “straight out of the trap,” select specimens from a trusted set of fifty local growers. It’s now mid-morning and the first crawfish fishermen line up with their catch. Brian DuBois farms 1,000 cages spread over twice as many acres. I quiz him about his life, but, largely silent, all he’ll divulge is “that’s some work”—words he repeats a half dozen times.
Next, Raywood Stelly pulls up in a monster of a rig that makes Choate whistle and whisper to me, “That truck’s an animal, a crawfish-hauling son of a gun.” Stelly steps out without a word, ignores us notepad and camera-carrying interlopers, and opens the tailgate. His cargo matches the size of his vehicle. There are sacks on sacks on sacks: green (large-sized) and purple (extra-large, or “select” sized) nylon bags loaded with thirty to forty pounds of crawfish. The combined cacophony of thousands of bugs crawling, fighting, and breathing through their gills sounds like the world’s largest bowl of milk-soaked Rice Krispies. During the next hour, Choate will purchase ten purple sacks, at $3.25 to the pound, and over forty greens at fifty cents cheaper. For a creature that most Cajuns wouldn’t touch, much less pay for, a half century ago, crawfish are a pricy commodity.
“You just can’t cookbook crawfish farming,” Dr. Ray McClain explains in his office at the Rice Research Station, an outpost of Louisiana State University’s Agricultural Center. McClain is a crawfish scientist. And by “cookbook,” he means you cannot devise a step-by-step recipe for crawfish cultivation.
Growing bugs is as much an art form to be learned over years of practice as it is a science.
But still McClain tries to add an empirical component to crawfishing; working from the center’s labs and fields, located outside the town of Crowley, the “Rice Capital of America,” McClain studies the crustacean’s mating habits, guides farmers in selecting the right rice variety, and builds better bait traps, all in the name of getting more crawfish into boiling pots.
I look out at a crawfish field across the two-lane blacktop from Choate’s warehouse. A man steers a crawfish combine up and down the neutral spaces between each row of rice. The boat crawls at a pace just slow enough for the man to pick up each bobbing crawfish cage, shake out any bugs, rebait, and replace the trap all in one fluid motion. The boat’s guiding paddlewheel churns the muddy water, emitting a soft slap-slap-slap that reminds me that crawfish farmers irascibly resist change. I’m reminded of a story that my seafood guru Jim Gossen told me about the invention of the combine. As kids, the West brothers, Craig and Troy, farmed their father’s crawfish lots by floating a bathtub, which they’d fill with the catch, through the fields. After rains and floods, the rice-pond water often reached Troy’s chest. Fed up with trudging through the mire, he attached, to a small aluminum boat, a garden till strong enough to propel him along. The father took one look at his son’s innovation, which soon revolutionized the crawfishing industry, and muttered, “There goes the laziest man I’ve ever seen.”
Like the misunderstood genius of Troy West, there is a scientific brilliance to the art of crawfish boiling that Donni Choate brings to the table. He starts with the choicest bugs. “I hand pick ’em,” he’s proud to say. “Threw a [whole] sack away over the weekend because I wasn’t satisfied.” Donni Choate tosses out those too small, too old (which makes for tougher shells and smaller tail meat), and just not right. He then purges the crawfish in continually filtering water, an extra step only one, maybe two, other restaurants undertake. After this twenty-four-hour water bath, which removes what Choate calls the “wild taste,” the crawfish are ready for the boiling pot.
A hundred-quart pot is filled with water straight from the hose and brought to a boil. Choate and a helper then dump forty to fifty pounds of crawfish into a basket that rests flush in the pot. Fifteen minutes and one beer later, the crawfish are cooked, the shells puffed up and red as a toreador’s cape. The basket full of bugs is hoisted into another pot, a liquid-spice blend simmering just below the boiling point. Ten minutes and a faster second beer and the crawfish are done. His assistant shouts out orders—“five pounds spicy, mushrooms,” “three pounds medium,” “five pounds extra, onions and potatoes”—as Choate sprinkles his house-blended, pepper-heavy spice mix and adds the vegetables accordingly. He sprays extra spicy orders with a habanero-cayenne concoction that makes even Choate cough most every time he applies it. His assistant turns to me. “That’ll light your ass up!”
For the next hour, I study the frenetic art and science of the duo’s movements. The air is diffuse with sweat and steam; liquid pepper, granulated pepper, and swampy smells make my sinuses sputter, and I walk outside often to breathe. Three hundred pounds of crawfish later, they allow themselves a slow beer and a half-hour break as the next round of customers take their seats. Donni Choate turns to me and asks, “Y’all gonna eat some bugs?”