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King Crawfish


Entertaining a crowd? Take a lesson from the Cajuns

By Tony Welch
Published: April 1, 2005
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Paige Fisher, 13, tasted her first crawfish at the age of 3 and has since lost count.
Photo by Tony Welch
In Louisiana, it’s arguable whether crawfish love other crawfish more passionately than Louisianians
love crawfish.
   
I learned of this phenomenon by marrying into three New Orleans families: the Bonnabels (BONNA-bells), the Pellissiers (PELLEE-shays), and the Richards (REE-shards).
   
If this sprawling oak had a collective family motto, it would be: “Sucez les têtes et pincez les queues.”  Translation: “Suck the heads and pinch the tails.” Such is the fate each year of 540 million Louisiana mudbugs (collectively, 30 million pounds), whose demise in part can be traced to my in-laws.
   
Imagine a sunny southern Saturday in April. A battalion of armored crawfish – roughly 1,400 critters – has surrounded a group of weekenders in a pincers movement at the Pellissier camp on Lake Catherine, an hour’s drive from downtown New Orleans. For the record, second homes are not referred to as cabins or cottages in Louisiana – they are camps. 
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Crawfish, sausage, onions, potatoes and corn are the main ingredients for a Louisiana crawfish boil. It takes a canoe paddle to stir the ingredients in this 80-quart pot.
Photo by Tony Welch
The Pellissiers’ recently constructed getaway sits 12 feet off the ground on pilings, providing a magnificent diorama of the surrounding marshland and waterways, orange sherbet sunrises and a variety of wildlife.
   
Scott Pellissier and his father-in-law, John Harper, are the chefs-dans-chargez. On this April afternoon, upward of 25 relations and friends are expected to dribble in by boat and car, and our duo has allowed for that. Into an 80-quart aluminum cooker, set up outside and fired by propane, will go 80 pounds of live-trapped Atchafalya Basin wild crawfish – the world’s tastiest – together with a host of other ingredients and flavorings. The blend will be divided into two equal batches to make it more manageable, but even at that a canoe paddle is required to stir the pot.
   
Both John and Scott know by heart the sequential steps leading to a successful crawfish boil. First, they must wait for an hour while the crustaceans purge themselves in a tub of tap water. A double soak-and-rinse does the trick. All is now in readiness.

The custom at sizable gatherings is to liberally sprinkle the edibles atop newspapers spread the length of a long table, within easy reach of each seated guest. But today’s serving station is a five-foot circular table. Mercy!  This leads to a soccer field stampede.
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Craig Aucoin purges the crawfish in fresh water, prior to boiling.
Photo by Tony Welch
Plates are piled high and carried off to nearby shady spots. But there’s no letup for Scott and John, who set about boiling the second batch. They will be hard pressed to finish before the first mountain of 700 crawfish and all the trimmings are tucked away.
   
As we sit pinching the tails and sucking the heads, whom do I find at my elbow but camp jester Craig Aucoin (oh-KWEN), who bills himself as a walking compendium of crustaceous factoids. 
   
For starters, Craig wants me to know that citizens of the Pelican State have the highest level of eye-hand coordination skills in all of North America. From about the time they leave the Terrible Twos, explains Craig, native sons and daughters learn everything there is to know about crawfish dissection. And woe betide any child left behind. Since 1982, Craig notes with a wink, numerous questions involving crawfish have appeared in the Louisiana SAT exams. Example: What is the principle difference between a lobster and a crawfish? Answer: Lobsters are inedible.
   
Craig goes on to tell about his Acadian buddy Placide Robichaux (RO-beesho), who wrote the Gerber Products Company suggesting that the baby food manufacturer should market a crawfish purée. Craig is skilled in the Cajun dialect, so we’ll let him take it from here.
   
“My friend Placide, he say, ‘Craig, I knows dat crawfish moosh will be a big hit with de enfants. Just because dey got no teeth yet to chew, don’t mean dey got to suffer and go without.’ But alas, not a peep did Placide hear from the Gerber folks.
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Seven hundred cooked crustaceans, to be followed by 700 more.
Photo by Tony Welch
“So Placide, he say, ‘I think I knows de reason. If you ask me, it’s ’cause dere’s no way to stop de grandparents from buying all dem jars demself. Dey ain’t got no teeth, too.’ ”
   
Then there’s the matter of the Louisiana Purchase. “I’ll let you in on a little secret about that, one you won’t find in the history books,” Craig told me between mouthfuls of crawfish, potatoes, corn and sausage.
   
New Orleans, Dec. 20, 1803. The day has finally arrived for the orderly transfer of power to the Americans. Militiamen in all their braided finery close ranks in the middle of Jackson Square (then called Plaza d’Armas). Official dignitaries, leading citoyens and their resplendent Creole ladies crowd the now-famous landmark on the edge of the French Quarter. The blue, white and red tricolor is hauled down and swiftly replaced by the red, white and blue Bars and Stars. The soon-to-depart French governor of Louisiana, Pierre de Laussat, makes an emotional speech. Then he pauses a long moment.
   
“Mesdames and messieurs! Mes amis! Ze crawfeesh – oooohhh. I am going to mees them!” And with that the ex-governor buries his face in his hands, weeping piteously. In an instant the crowd is on its feet, cheering wildly, and the military honor guard adds its voice with a fusillade of musket fire.
   
By the time the smoke cleared, says Craig, all the celebrants had retired to a tavern on Bourbon Street – for a magnificent crawfish boil.
   
Vive le crawfish!

Tony Welch, a pathetically slow shucker, was introduced to Louisiana crawfish in 1956. He has yet to reach the 10-pound mark – 150 mudbugs – which is the annual average intake of every resident of the Pelican State.

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Photo by Tony Welch

How to Have a Crawfish Boil . . .


Commençons!

Empty one 73-ounce jar of Zatarain’s Crawfish/Shrimp/ Crab Boil Powder into the bubbling water in an 80-quart cooker and stir until dissolved.

Toss in a dozen bay leaves, then 6 halved/squeezed lemons, 6 halved onions and one head of celery, chopped.

Simmer with the lid on for 15 minutes to release
the flavors.

Next, add 11/2 cups of Zatarain’s Shrimp/Crab Liquid Boil, a concentrate that more deeply penetrates the ingredients.

Then add 5 pounds of new red potatoes left intact in their mesh bag, and 6 garlic pods (the tops cut away to expose each bead).

Simmer 5 more minutes before adding 40 pounds of crawfish, 5 pounds of hot or smoked sectioned sausage, and a container (1 quart) of whole mushrooms.

Stir-blend the ingredients.

Bring to a full boil and cook with the lid on for 12 minutes.

Then stir in one handful of Chinese powdered red pepper (mandatory in Louisiana, but entirely optional beyond her borders).

Finally, turn off the burner and add 3 packages (24 sections) of frozen corn-on-the-cob, and 1/2 bag of ice cubes. If lacking ice, hose down the outside of the cooker.

Allow the cooling contents to season for 20 minutes (not to worry – the corn will cook).

Stir occasionally, then drain thoroughly.  

Voilà!
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Time to suck the heads and pinch the tails, Louisiana style.
Photo by Tony Welch


Mudbugs

   
Nearly 85,000 flooded acres are devoted to crawfish aqua-culture in south Louisiana. Baited traps set in rearing ponds are tended from late November through June. With the onset of hot weather, hibernating crawfish burrow into the cool mud, just as air conditioners are turned on across south Louisiana. That’s why they’re sometimes referred to as mudbugs.

King Krawfish
   
The Crawfish Capitol of the World is Breaux Bridge, La.; its annual écrevisse festival is in May. Nearly a hundred festivals in which crawfish cuisine figure prominently are staged each year in Acadiana’s 22 parishes (counties) extending from the Louisiana coast north to Alexandria. Other revelries scattered across North America, from California northeast to Nova Scotia and south to Texas, also help celebrate the crowning of King Krawfish.

Where Can I Get Mine?
   
The Internet is crawling with Cajun recipes. These sites will get you salivating – and some will let you in on how to order live crawfish.
 
www.cajuncrawfish.com
www.cajunculture.com  
www.chilipaper.com
www.louisianacajun.com
www.kajunboy.com

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