April is Louisiana Crawfish Awareness Month, a recognition of Louisana crawfish’s importance to the economy and culture of the state. What used to be a local ritual has spread to backyards nationally, and Louisiana’s crawfish business is now a nearly half-a-billion-dollar-a-year industry.
Louisiana crawfish accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s domestic crawfish and contributes more than $300 million in annual economic impact. Its annual yield of crawfish ranges from 120 to 150 million pounds, which is produced by the more than 1,000 crawfish farmers and 800 commercial fishermen who catch wild crawfish.
The crawfish is a Jurassic Era creature more than 200 million years old. Crawfish have been part of the American culinary culture since long before the arrival of the early European settlers, and they were a staple of the diet of native people who lived off the land and often dried and stored crawfish for use when food was expected to be scarce. They are such an integral part of the landscape that in 1983 Louisiana became the first state in the nation to name a state crustacean, the crawfish. Today two other states, Maryland and Oregon, have a state crustacean.
In 2015, the Louisiana State Legislature passed a resolution recognizing April as “Louisiana Crawfish Awareness Month,” a designation sought by Deanie’s Seafood Restaurants to recognize the significance of the Louisiana crawfish industry and the state’s French-Cajun heritage.
The crawfish is the dominant food-related ethnic symbol in Acadiana, and continues to be an endearing symbol of Louisiana.
Sam Irwin, a native of Breaux Bridge, La.—the ‘Crawfish Capital of the World’—believes crawfish, a symbol of steadfastness and courage, should be named our state symbol. The author of Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, Irwin grew up in the crawfish industry.
He recounts Revon Reed, a Cajun proponent who published the first book in Cajun-French, who said the crawfish should replace the Bald Eagle as the national symbol, since the crawfish is the only animal that will not leave its post when faced with an oncoming train. “If you put an eagle on a railroad track and a train comes, the eagle is going to fly away, but the crawfish will put his claws up and stay still and hold its ground,” Irwin explained.
The name of the native Louisiana Houma tribe literally means “red,” but is said to be an abbreviation of saktcihomma, “red crawfish.” Crawfish was the Houma’s war emblem, and was honored by the Houma people as their totem, the spiritual ancestor from which they all were descended. This made crawfish a sacramental creature in their pre-Christian culture.
The Houma Indians aren’t the only ones who gave crawfish special significance. In native American folklore told from the Southeastern woodlands to Northern plains to the Pacific Northwest, the crawfish plays a role in the creation of the earth, according to “The Crawfish Book.” A crawfish was said to have burrowed underground to retrieve the mud that would become the foundation of the earth. Similar stories of an earth-diver were shared across northern Asia and eastern Europe, with some versions replacing the crawfish with other creatures, and even the devil.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE CRAWFISH INDUSTRY
For people living along the Mississippi River or the bayous of Louisiana, crawfish were fairly easy to come by. Whenever the waterways would flood, the crawfish would come up and all you needed was a pole with some bait.
Crawfish became a delicacy available at markets on the Atlantic seaboard as early as 1817. By the late 1800’s, they became popular enough in New York to require shipping crawfish from the Potomac to points further north and eventually Louisiana and elsewhere. Before refrigeration and airplanes, shipping live crawfish required expediency; while cooked crawfish required sufficient ice. Commercial sales of crawfish did not become prevalent until the late 1800s, due in part to the use of nets to yield a larger harvest.
Crawfish was largely viewed as “poor man’s food” and was mostly consumed in rural areas. For many, crawfish was used mainly as bait. Some restaurants in the Lafayette area served crawfish dishes on their menus. The first Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival was held in 1960 after Breaux Bridge was named the crawfish capitol of the world.
By the late 1960s, restaurants like Pat’s and Henderson’s and Don’s Seafood in Lafayette, as well as the Picadilly Cafeteria, which had restaurants in Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, were serving dishes such as Crawfish Étouffée, which translates as “smothered,” using the meat from crawfish tails. In New Orleans, Deanie’s Seafood Market in Bucktown became one of the first places to make boiled crawfish and seafood available for retail sale.
Perhaps one of the biggest boosts to the Louisiana crawfish industry came in the 1960s with Vatican II. Vatican II, which among its many other edicts for the Catholic faith relaxed the rules to abolish mandatory abstinence from meat except for Fridays during Lent, coincided with the spread of the popularity of eating crawfish and the beginning of a large commercial crawfish industry, according to “The Joy of Y’at Catholicism.” It just so happens that Lent and the height of crawfish season overlap, and the proliferation of crawfish and the practice of Louisiana Catholics observing Lent with seafood on Fridays played a big role in the expansion of the state’s commercial crawfish industry.
The crawfish market boomed in the mid 80s when rice prices declined, and rice farmers looking for other ways to supplement their income started flooding their rice fields to grow crawfish with the guidance of the LSU Ag Center, which taught the farmers pond technology. Up until this time, most of the crawfish available for people to consume had come from wild harvests in natural habitats, which meant availability of crawfish fluctuated due to fluctuations in water level and weather patterns. Once crawfish farming began, it allowed for more consistent supplies from year to year.
“It took a while for crawfish to spread across the entire state of Louisiana, but by the mid-90s crawfish was fairly easy to get across the state,” Irwin said.
CRAWFISH POPULARITY TODAY
Today, Louisiana exports more than half of its crawfish harvest to other markets. The crawfish market is dominated by the live market used for the Louisiana tradition of boiled crawfish. Purchasing crawfish tail meat is once again a delicacy—a pound of peeled crawfish will run you about $14.95 per lb. while a pound of Choice sirloin can be purchased for about $8 per lb. Market rates for boiled crawfish range from approximately $4.99 per lb. to about $2.39 per lb. at peak season.
Low in calories, Louisiana Wild crawfish are a low-fat source of protein, essential vitamins and minerals, and they have nearly half the calories of roasted, skinless chicken breast.
As crawfish historian and author Irwin says, “Crawfish are taking over the world one epicurean at a time.”
PINCH A PALOOZA: A CELEBRATION OF CRAWFISH
Each year, Deanie’s celebrates Crawfish Season with its Pinch A Palooza Festival and Crawfish Eating Contest, which takes place Sun., April 17 at Deanie’s original location in Bucktown. This daylong festival near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain serves up 5,000 lbs of boiled crawfish, along with crawfish specialities such as crawfish etouffee, crawfish nachos, fried crawfish tails and crawfish pasta.