When Life Gives You Crawfish, Make Étouffée

By Sam Irwin

In the beginning, there were crawfish and God said it was good.

Nearly 200 million years later, the Cajuns of south Louisiana added a little salt and cayenne to a simmering pot of crawfish etouffée and agreed with God — crawfish are good.

0004.1335-1  The Native Americans (the Chitimachas, Houmas, Choctaw and Attakapas) of the Mississippi, Teche and Lafourche river valleys lived in Louisiana when the Spanish arrived in 1528. The French showed up in 1682 and were subsequently followed by the Acadians, English, Germans, Americans, Italians, Croatians, Vietnamese and almost every ethnic group in between. The West Africans didn’t have a choice, but they also came.

The crawfish were always here.  Every culture that has settled in south Louisiana has fallen in love with the tiny crustacean from the Jurassic Period. In most parts of the United States the crawfish is used as fish bait and often considered a nuisance.[1]  Sometimes the hardy creature was even considered a pest in Louisiana. “Death to Crawfish” was the column header of a 1904 St. Tammany Farmer issue reporting that the levee board was using carbolic acid

“with good results to preserve the levees from attack by that clawing and insidious member, the crawfish. The slaughter of crawfish has been progressing quietly….”[2]

Flood protection levees are important to Louisiana but so is the crawfish. Some Louisiana Frenchman believes that the bald eagle should be replaced by the crawfish as the symbol of America. Cajun radio host Revon Reed documented those sentiments in Lache Pas La Patate when he wrote

“We shouldn’t make the eagle the symbol of American, but the crawfish. The reason is simple: put an eagle on a railroad track and what does the eagle do? When a train comes it raises its wings and flies away. But place l’ecrevisse on the same rail and when the big locomotive is coming, what will he do? The crawfish raises its claws and will not leave his post! Yes, my friends, that is the crawfish.”[3]

Some south Louisiana pickup trucks sport bumper stickers proudly proclaiming “I’m Cajun! I eat anything!” This declaration comes from a Cajun’s propensity to eat whatever he or she can trap, catch or shoot. Like Louisiana pioneers, modern inhabitants will eat squirrel, deer, possum, alligator, frog legs, raccoon, gaspergou, sac-a-lait, boudin (a rice and pork sausage), blood boudin, chaudin (pig stomach stuffed with ground pork and seasoning), turduckens and merlitons.  And it was the low-born, and mostly French-speaking, swamp dweller of the Atchafalaya River who taught Louisiana and the world to eat and enjoy crawfish. You could say Cajuns perfected crawfish.

Multi-ethnic swamp settlers probably learned to eat crawfish from the Native Americans. Incidentally, the Attakapas outdid the omnivorous Cajuns if their reputation as cannibals is deserved — they did eat everything.[4]

Eating crawfish is nothing new. Ancient cultures ate crawfish. Sophisticated cultures ate crawfish. Heathens ate crawfish. For Christ’s sake, even Queen Elizabeth Tudor, the Virgin Queen, ate crawfish.[5]

Even though Elizabeth tasted crawfish, the crawfish never took hold in England as it did on the European continent. The French and other countries developed an epicurean love of the crawfish.[6] Les Francais developed the complicated and incredibly delicious bisque recipe[7]  while the Swedes’ ritualized consumption of crawfish called kräftskiva reaches mythic heights [8] and the Finns can sit and eat crawfish for “hours.”[9] The Europeans even called their native species the Noble Crawfish (Asticus asticus).

The French and Cajuns who settled in south Louisiana brought an Old World custom of eating crawfish with them. The English settlers of north Louisiana had no tradition of crawfish consumption at all.[10]

The beginnings of Louisiana’s modern crawfish industry roughly coincide with the arrival of the American oil man. Both industries are closely tied to Louisiana’s image, and Reed’s prediction came true: crawfish did emerge as the prevalent symbol of Cajunism and Louisiana.[11]

The residents of the oil patch initially did not recognize the crawfish as a desirable food source. The oilmen called the crawfish mudbugs, crawdads and yabbies. They called the bilingual Cajuns worse, but the crawfish eventually conquered the oil field redneck as it did all the other ethnic groups that immigrated to Louisiana.[12]

It is often said that crawfish was once considered a poor man’s food and eaten only in the privacy of one’s home. The popular myth is not borne out by historical evidence.

Some authors have even claimed that

“(1927 flood relief) workers from the Red Cross tried to convince Cajuns to eat more crawfish, a widely available and healthy source of protein, but they were generally rebuffed. Crawfish were suitable for eating only during Lent, on Friday (if you couldn’t afford fish), and perhaps if starvation were your only alternative. There simply is no long tradition of Cajuns feasting on crawfish on a regular basis in Louisiana.”[13]

The reality is that Cajuns were eating and enjoying crawfish prior to the maturing of the 1960s crawfish business, regardless of the religious season. They ate crawfish when crawfish was in season and because they enjoyed the social aspect of the crawfish boil.  Some dishes were even considered haute-cuisine and served in the finest New Orleans restaurants[14] as well as the small town hotels and cafés. But mostly they ate crawfish because crawfish taste good.

Lent does partly coincide with the crawfish season, but the Crescent City residents and Cajuns in Breaux Bridge, Henderson, Catahoula, Arnaudville, Pierre Part, Baton Rouge, Morgan City, St. Martinville, Thibodaux, Abbeville, Lafayette, even St. Tammany Parish and dozens of other communities near swampy waterways, ponds and the Atchafalaya Basin[15] fished and ate crawfish when the weather began warming in February and had been doing so for years.[16] No media report of the time dispels that fact.

St. Martinville’s Weekly Messenger reported that the abundant spring rainfall of 1900 “meant a chance for the (St. Martin Parish) swampers and a large crawfish crop.”[17] In 1906 the St. Martinville Town Council allowed crawfish sales within town limits only at the public market house[18] and later set the cost of a “stall for the sale of crawfish at fifty cents per day” in 1918.[19]

The Weekly Messenger also admonished businessmen with know-how in 1915 to look into canning facilities because “our bayous and lakes (produce) immense quantities of fish and shell fish, buffalo, cat, bass, perch, crabs, crawfish (and) turtle.”[20]

In Donaldsonville, on Bayou Lafourche, the June 25, 1921 Chief reported that “River shrimp and crawfish are very plentiful this year, and are sold at prices lower than those which prevailed last year. Crawfish can be bought at 25 cents the bucket. Farm hands on the rice plantations are regaling themselves with the delicious and nourishing crawfish, while colored children are earning extra money selling them to the white folks in town.”[21]

In Opelousas, the 1919 Knights of Columbus “gave a delicious crayfish gumbo at the order’s home on Main Street. The gumbo was of the real “Louisiana kind” and was thoroughly enjoyed by the many who were present for the occasion.”[22]

79-year-old Floyd Knott of Arnaudville said the resourceful rural dwellers of the 1930s could catch their own crawfish quiet easily.  Begin boxed text During Lent there was usually a plentiful supply of crawfish. After a rain the ditches became muddy with them. Some people still believe that the crawfish were attracted to the mud but that was not true. Crawfish prefer clean water; it is just that they were so plentiful that in an effort to scratch for food the water became muddy. But the muddy water indicated that crawfish were to be caught, and the only way that they were caught in the 30s and 40s was with a pole net which we called a ‘carrelet.’[23] End boxed text

There are dozens of mentions in the society pages of crawfishing as a social activity as well.

“A party composed of Misses May and Elmira Frost and Laura Lagarde, Messrs. Gus Wallace Fulton Rogers and Henry Bergeron enjoyed a delightful outing on Leighton plantation during the week. Crawfishing was the pastime and the catch made was excellent,” the Weekly Thibodaux Sentinel of April 27, 1901 noted.

In turn-of-the-19th-century Lafayette,

“Mr. and Mrs. S. J. Breaux entertained at a social dinner last Sunday …Dinner was served a la Francaise as follows: red and white wines, red fish, quail, teal duck, crawfish salad with aspic….”[24]

The Beaumont Enterprise’s banner headline Tasty Crawfish Dishes Add to Teche Culinary Fame of March 17, 1935 reported that Mr. and Mrs. Pee Wee Gagnon of Abbeville had been known for crawfish dishes in their eatery for years. Dean Tevis, the feature’s writer, even put President Hebert Hoover at the table of the Hebert Hotel in Breaux Bridge dining on “Mother Hebert’s crawfish bisque.”[25]

Tevis said “a jaunt of a hundred and fifty miles from Texas for crawfish bisque is rather commonplace” and that “in the rural sections of the territory crawfishing from two to four months every year is one of the chief occupations and certainly the leading pastime of its picturesque people.”[26]

The March 20, 1932 Times-Picayune dedicated more than a half page to a feature called Fearless Little Crawfish Supplies Wayside Industry and Affords Family Sport and the sub-headline of Ditches Along Main Roads Teem With Crustaceans Rich in Food Value and Waiting to Be Caught by Professional Fishermen or Amateur. “Marshland dwellers are trappers one season, moss-pickers and crabbers the next, the fishermen find crawfishing the easiest job of them all.”[27]

Reverend Herman Joseph Jacobi wrote of the 1937 Pierre Part community of Assumption Parish in Catholic Life in Rural Louisiana, “during the summer there is an abundance of crabs, and in the spring, of crawfish. For the families, this (crawfish) is just another variety of fish.”[28]

Jacobi mentions a 1932 Pierre Part crawfish peeling operation that canned crawfish bisque for resale for area markets being in operation for at least three years before it turned a profit in 1936.[29]

There were other crawfishing canning plants in the Atchafalaya and Mississippi River flood plains. The Forêt Family of LaPlace, just 20 miles east of New Orleans, processed crawfish caught by the Forêt children and area residents in the 1930s. That the crawfish were harvested with simple lift nets is an indication of how abundant the fisheries just west of New Orleans were. New Orleans buyers traveled to LaPlace to buy the live product and the Forêts peeled the remaining crawfish to can crawfish bisque.[30]

Odas Dugas of Coteau Holmes owned a dump truck that was used to build the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection levee. A commercial fisherman, he also caught large quantities of crawfish in the spring. The Coteau Holmes area was not a very large population center, so to market his crawfish in the late 1940s, Dugas would leave sacks of crawfish at the end of road near his boat launching point at Coteau Holmes. Customers would drive to the location and leave money for the crawfish. Eventually, Dugas began to deliver his crawfish to the Lafayette-Breaux Bridge area and one of his customers was Edwin “Mulate” Guidry of Mulate’s Restaurant and Bar in Breaux Bridge. A steady supply of crawfish guaranteed, Mulate’s began to sell crawfish dishes on a regular basis.[31]

That Breaux Bridge and St. Martin Parish had become so well for the production of ecrevisse, the well-to-do state representative Bob Angelle of Breaux Bridge referred to himself in 1946 as “a little old country boy from the crawfish country.”[32]

Floyd Knott says there was no class distinction associated with crawfish consumption. Rural or city resident, rich or poor, people ate crawfish in season because the crustaceans were plentiful and there for the taking.

“We never considered ourselves bas clas (low class), only rural folks who made the best use of our resources. If city folks could have gotten the crawfish I am sure that they would have savored the dish. No restaurant featured the dishes mostly because there were no restaurants in the country and rural folks seldom went to the big cities,” he surmised.[33]

City folks did get crawfish, however, and the feast prepared were considered treats, exclusive and celebratory.  The 1915 version of the Baton Rouge Elks Club was putting the finishing touches on

“the Eatmore club (and) will resume their periodical Bohemian luncheons, varying the events as the season change. Crawfish bisque will be the principal attraction at the first of these, to be held within a fortnight; then as shrimp and fish come in season they will be featured. When it comes to real enjoyment, without frills or furbelows, the Elks stand in a class by themselves.”[34]

Perhaps the only shame associated with crawfish is to be guilty of not seasoning the food well enough. The overwhelming evidence indicates that crawfish was a seasonal delicacy and a celebrated attraction for any social group or function. In other words, when life gives you crawfish, make etouffée.

Nevertheless the myth that crawfish was once a poor man’s food and not to be eaten in polite company remains. Perhaps the origin of that fable arrived with the oil man. There were some, perhaps wishing to avoid being called “backwards” by noveau-riche oilmen, who would not eat crawfish in public lest they be associated with uneducated swamp dwellers.

“I think a stigma associated with crawfish popped up just about the time the oil industry arrived in Louisiana,” said , owner of the popular Café des Amis (pronounced ka-fay daze ah-mee) in downtown Breaux Bridge. “The only place the oil field workers ever saw crawfish was in the sewage pond. They didn’t relate to the clean water crawfish that grew in the Atchafalaya Basin and rice fields.” [35]

Ironically, today’s crawfish market is partly driven by the big oil cities, as well as the other southern metro areas.

“The crawfish demand is worldwide, but there’s such a great demand now in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and New Orleans — major, major cities now,” said Ashby “Rocky” Landry Jr., owner of Don’s Seafood and Steakhouse in Lafayette. “And they don’t care the price. They will pay seven or eight dollars a pound (for a catered party) if the crawfish are purged and big. And if you tell them that’s the price, they’ll say ‘So what?’”

If you’re a middle class Cajun who likes to have crawfish regularly, “ça c’est triste” (that’s a tragedy), or, “ça c’est bien bon” (that’s real good), if you’re a crawfish merchant.

Fortunately Cajun self-esteem has risen over time. Any perceived stigma is in the past. In the 2012-13 season, Louisiana produced more than 93 million pounds of crawfish and did it in just 29 parishes[36] — 284 square miles — an area a little larger than the island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.

How did the lowly Louisiana crawfish, a.k.a. crawdads, the “noble mudbug,” crayfish, écrevisse, a so-called poor man’s food, emerge from the muck, become the State Crustacean, the symbol of a culture and evolve into a valuable aquaculture worth $162 million a year? [37]

Crawfish Bisque

Before the days of the commercial crawfish peeling facility if you wanted to impress someone you served them crawfish bisque. Bisque, meaning “twice-cooked,” entailed scalding live crawfish, peeling them yourself and then stuffing each individual head with bisque. The dish is totally worth it. Here is Don’s Seafood and Steakhouse of Lafayette’s recipe for bisque served in stew.

Crawfish Bisque Heads

20 lbs. crawfish or 3 lbs. tail meat

1 cup chopped celery

2 cups chopped onions

1/2 lb. oleo

1/2 cup green onions and parsley, chopped

4 eggs

3 stale buns, soaked in water, salt and cayenne (red pepper) to taste

1 cup bread crumbs

Scald crawfish. Put enough water in a heavy pot so that crawfish will be covered with four inches of water. Bring to boil. Drop crawfish into boiling water and turn heat off immediately. Let crawfish set in hot water for five minutes in uncovered pot. Drain off the water. Peel crawfish and save heads shells.

Save crawfish fat. After scalding crawfish, separate tails from head. Inside the crawfish head is a yellow substance, which is the “fat.” Remove this fat from all of the crawfish heads. Set aside crawfish tails, heads and fat.

Combine butter or oleo, onions and celery in heavy iron pot. Let cook in uncovered pot over medium heat until onions are wilted, stirring constantly. Then had crawfish fat and cook slowly for 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt, black pepper and cayenne.

Add soaked buns. Mix well. Add beaten eggs and bread crumbs. Chop half the scalded crawfish tails. Add chopped crawfish tails, green onions and parsley to cooked mixture.

Stuff crawfish heads with the mixture and serve with crawfish stew made with the remaining crawfish tails. Serve the stew with cooked white rice in soup bowls with about five stuffed heads in each bowl. Serves eight.

Crawfish Stew

1 1/2 lbs. crawfish tailmeat

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped celery

1/2 can whole tomatoes

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 level teaspoons tomato paste

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cooking oil

1/2 cup green onions and parsley, chopped

1 gallon cold water

Salt, pepper and cayenne (red pepper)

Make a roux. Put oil in heavy iron pot over medium heat. When oil is hot, gradually stir in flour. Lower Heat. It is very important to constantly continue stirring. After all of the flour and oil are combined, turn fire down to low and cook until golden brown. After the roux is desired color, remove from pot into another container until ready for use. (Roux will become too dark if left in warm port). (Editor’s note: in lieu of cooking roux, you may substitute four heaping tablespoons of pre-cooked jarred roux).

Add onions, celery, whole tomatoes and tomato paste to roux. Cook in heavy uncovered pot over medium heat for one about 40 minutes, or until oil separates from tomatoes. Set aside.

Put one gallon of water, garlic and the crawfish fat in uncovered pot over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it boils. Season generously with salt, black pepper and cayenne. Add roux mixture. Cook in uncovered pot slowly for one hour. Add crawfish tails and continue boiling slowly in uncovered pot for another 20 minutes. Add green onions and parsley. Serve in soup plates with cooked rice and stuffed bisque heads.

Sam Irwin is a freelance journalist and writer who lives in Baton Rouge. He is the former editor of the Louisiana Market Bulletin, a state agricultural journal, and served as the press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry under Mike Strain. He is currently the public relations director of the American Sugar Cane League. In addition to writing numerous news articles and features for the Advocate, Country Roads, Louisiana Cookin’, Offbeat, Louisiana Kitchen and Culture, and other journals, Irwin’s fiction has been published in a number of online magazines. His LANote blog is found at www.LANote.org.

[1] “Crawfish Cause Levee Trouble,” Times-Picayune, June 7, 1908.

[2] “Death To The Crawfish,” St. Tammany Farmer, January 23, 1904.

[3] Revon Reed, Lache Pas La Patate: Portrait Des Acadiens de La Louisiana (Montreal, Quebec: Editions Parti pris, 1976).

[4] Jim Bradshaw, “Arrow Points and Place Names Are Reminders of Attakapas,” Daily Advertiser, August 26, 1997.

[5] Pitre, The Crawfish Book.

[6] Malcolm Comeaux, “Historical Development of the Crayfish Industry in the United States” (presented at the Second International Symposium on Freshwater Crayfish, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Division of Continuing Education, 1975), 609–620.

[7] “Bisque,” Dictionary.com (Oakland: Dictionary.com, 2013), http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bisque.

[8] Po Tidholm, “The Crayfish Party,” The Official Gateway to Sweden, 2004, http://web.archive.org/web/20090204020249/http://www.sweden.se/templates/cs/CommonPage____11371.aspx.

[9] Renee Peck, “The Flavors of Finland,” Times-Picayune, August 12, 1982.

[10] Comeaux, “Historical Development of the Crayfish Industry in the United States.”

[11] Barry Jean Ancelet, Cajun Country (Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1991).

[12] C. Paige Gutierrez, Cajun Foodways (Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1992).

[13] Jerry G. Walls, Crawfishes of Louisiana (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

[14] “Antoine’s Menu” (Louisiana Digital Library, 1906).

[15] Pool, “Vast Commercial Possibilities of the Humble Louisiana Crawfish.”

[16] “Local Paragraphs,” Weekly Thibodaux Sentinel, April 27, 1901.

[17] “Local News,” Weekly Messenger, March 31, 1900.

[18] “Crawfish and Other Seafood,” Weekly Messenger, April 14, 1906.

[19] “Town Council,” Weekly Messenger, January 12, 1918.

[20] “If You Know a Business, Study Its Chances Here,” Weekly Messenger, May 22, 1915.

[21] “River Shrimp and Crawfish,” Donaldsonville Chief, June 25, 1921.

[22] “Big Blow-Out at the K. of C. Hall,” St. Landry Clarion, March 22, 1919.

[23] Knott, “Book (5:17 A.m.).”

[24] “Carencro Budget,” Lafayette Advertiser, May 4, 1904.

[25] Dean Tevis, “Tasty Crawfish Dishes Add to Teche Culinary Fame,” Beaumont Enterprise, March 17, 1935, Sunday edition.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Podine Schoenberger, “Fearless Little Crawfish Supplies Wayside Industry and Affords Family Sport,” Times-Picayune, March 20, 1932.

[28] Herman Joseph Jacobi, The Catholic Family In Rural Louisiana (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1937).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Huner and Konikoff, “Wild-Caught Crawfish Management Plan Working Draft For Review and Comment.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] “‘Right To Work’ Bill Is Passed By House; Referendum Is Killed,” State-Times, June 10, 1946.

[33] Knott, “Book (5:17 A.m.).”

[34] Mrs. K.C. Saxon, editor, “Society: Elks Supper Will Be Quite An Event,” Morning Advocate, April 6, 1915.

[35] Dickie Breaux, Interview, Digital Recording, July 26, 2013.

[36] “2012 LSU AgCenter Agricultural Summary,” 2012 State Totals, 2012, http://www.lsuagcenter.com/agsummary/archive/2012/-State-Totals/2012StateTotals.pdf.

[37] Ibid.


Attakapas Gazette is an exclusive trademark of The Attakapas Historical Association, Louisiana, USA
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Please use proper citations when referencing articles on this website
Editors:  Sue Schleifer, Sally O. Donlon, Jim Phillips  Consultant:  Shane K. Bernard

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