“The crawfish are running again,” says Gregg Sedotal, as he hauls his trap out of the swampy water of Southern Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin and dumps its contents into a metal tray in his boat. The roughly three-inch-long, blackish crustaceans thrashing about will make good eating for crawfish boils, the Louisiana tradition in which family and friends stew sacks of live mudbugs in their backyards, then peel and eat them while drinking beer and hanging out. Crawfish boils are popular throughout Lent, particularly on Good Friday. Except for last year, as there were no crawfish.
It was a double whammy: Seawater from the storm surge that accompanied Hurricane Katrina contaminated inland freshwater ponds and rice paddies where some 80 percent of Louisiana’s crawfish are farmed, killing them. The wild ones caught by fishermen like Sedotal in the Basin, more sought after by seafood purveyors and restaurants because they’re believed to taste better, also died; water levels were too low because not enough snow had melted in the headwaters of the Mississippi. The poor catch forced Sedotal to take a job delivering FEMA trailers to people who had lost their homes. Now he’s happy to be back on his boat.
According to Darrel Rivere, a member of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board who represents the wild crawfishing industry, “This year is off to a great season.” The water level in the Basin is higher, and the ponds have recovered. “The crawfish are very plentiful right now.”
Enjoyed roughly from March to November (crawfish go dormant in the winter), the mud-burrowing crustaceans are synonymous with Cajuns, Southern Louisianans descended from French Canadians who settled in the area in the mid-1700s. Tasting something like a cross between shrimp and lobster, crawfish show up in dishes as varied as pasta, cornbread, beignets, and étouffée (a stew served over rice). But their most popular form, arguably as important to Louisianans as barbecue is to people in other parts of the South, is boiled and eaten straight out of the shell. Cajun or not, nearly everybody in Southern Louisiana enjoys them this way.
“I had to drive all over town one Easter just trying to find salt for our boil,” says Judy Whitmire, a human resources employee from Denham Springs, Louisiana, a small town near Baton Rouge. “Everybody else was doing their boils and bought up all the salt.”
Crawfish are old: Fossils suggest they’ve been on Earth for 285 million years. But they are usually not rare. During shortages in Louisiana, they’ve been imported from rice fields in Central California, where they were introduced sometime in the 1800s but are not widely farmed or eaten. They can be found in streams and deltas around the world—they’re even in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. They eat rotting vegetation and small fish. Mysteriously, Sweden is the only place in the world where they are widely consumed outside Louisiana. (There, boils are called Kräftor, which simply means crawfish in Swedish. The critters are flavored with dill and eaten not with beer, but with ice-cold Schnapps.) In fact, when a virus decimated Swedish stock in the late 1970s, the Swedes imported them from the delta of the Sacramento River, in Northern California. A crawfish-eating tradition never took off there, however. A Sacramento Delta–area crawdad festival (they’re only called crawfish in Louisiana, crayfish and crawdads elsewhere in the United State) actually imports its mudbugs from Louisiana. Why aren’t crawfish boils more widespread?
“It’s just a cultural thing,” says Dennis Lee, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. “For some reason people just don’t do it in other parts of the country. I prefer shrimp myself.”
Once you’ve been to a boil, you’re likely to become a convert. It starts with somebody picking up a few sacks of crawfish from a seasonal roadside “takeout” outlet (sort of like those fireworks stands that appear around Fourth of July). Although crawfish are usually also available preboiled, doing it yourself is a big part of the fun. While the beer is chilling, somebody makes dippin’ sauce—it varies from house to house but always involves mayonnaise and ketchup. Fire up the big propane burner/seafood boil pot combo that doubles as a turkey deep-fryer at Thanksgiving. If you’re lucky, you have a custom-built rig. (Sedotal made a giant square one that can hold two sacks at a time.)
Unless you bought them prepurged (or preboiled), the crawfish will have to be soaked in an ice chest full of fresh or salted water before cooking, to clean their exterior and cause them to spit up the swampy muck in their intestines.
Louisianans flavor their pot either with premixed seasonings, or by adding ingredients like cayenne, salt, hot sauce (Crystal is the preferred brand), and Zatarain’s Shrimp & Crab Boil. Vegetables are thrown in the pot too: Potatoes, onions, and corn on the cob are classic, but some people also like mushrooms. The vegetables become soft and spicy, and a well-boiled crawfish is savory and hot but not too hot.
You eat it with a tricky series of twists, cracks, and pinches that spills reddish juice all over your fingers and arms. Usually people just eat the “tail,” which is actually the crawfish’s abdomen. Others swear by also sucking the head of its rich yellow juice, which Louisianans call fat.