Friday, April 1, 2011

A Cajun Tale

We know the story of the Acadians expulsion from Nova Scotia and their eventual settling in Southern Louisiana. But how did the crawfish get here? Fortunately, I picked up a copy of Louisiana Cookin’ and an article by Marcelle Bienvenu* filled in the missing details. (Here are some roadside scenes to accompany the tale.)

“The lobster and the Acadians…resided happily together until 1755…when the British cruelly expelled the Acadians…and they wandered for years searching for a home, some finally settling in the bayous of southern Louisiana. According to lore, the lobsters yearned for their French friends and set out off across the country to find them. The journey south was so long and arduous that they began to shrink in size. By the time they arrived in south Louisiana, they were only miniatures of their former selves. And the story continues…although they had shrunk, the flavor had intensified.”

So, as the late Paul Harvey might have said: “Now you know the rest of the story.”

But to learn the work of a crawfish farmer, we contacted the Jefferson Davis Parish Office of Tourism to join their tour of a crawfish farm. So, a 35-mile trip west on I-10 to Roanoke and a mile north on route 395 brought us and a school bus full of students and teachers from Lake Charles to Bart's tour.

The best place to raise crawfish is in the rice fields of Louisiana. Here the mudbugs have plenty of water, it's shallow, the rice shoots left in the water (photo, left) after harvest keep them fed, and they use the grasses and plants to hide from predators. This also works out really well for the rice farmers. Instead of depending on the income from one crop (rice), they can spread their liability by adding a second or third one (crawfish). And last year the Louisiana crawfish crop totaled 183 million pounds.

When beginning a crawfish farm, about 100 pounds of crawfish are dumped into each acre planned about three months before they are to be harvested. Crawfish like to eat decomposing plants, small fish, algae, and insects. They love shallow waters that are warm. They prefer for the waters to be between 65 and 85 degrees F., and they will go dormant at temperatures below 45 degrees F. If the water temperature goes above 88 degrees F., the mudbugs will dig down 18-24 inches and hide in the mud.

With these temperatures in mind, April and May are the peak months for harvesting the crawfish.

Harvesting consists of setting out traps. Bart shows one of these traps--it has three openings, is baited with chunks of fish, and has a stake on it which provides stability for the trap in the water.

The traps are placed at 15-25 per acre depending on the time during the season. They are checked every 24-48 hours.

The boat used to harvest the catch is typically 14 to 16 feet long and 4 to 6 feet wide. These boats travel down the lanes of traps while fishermen empty and re-bait each trap from one side of the boat without stopping at each trap.

This wheel keeps the boat traveling in a straight line along the row of traps.

An engine operates a hydraulic
pump and motor to propel a metal wheel that extends beyond the boat. Metal cleats are welded to the wheel, which is mounted to the rear to push the boat in shallow water. The hydraulic steering can be operated with foot pedals, leaving the driver’s hands free to empty and rebait traps.

There are forward and reverse gears.

One person can handle about 150 to 200 traps per hour.

Boats are equipped with sacking tables to consolidate harvested crawfish. Trap contents are emptied onto the sacking table, which usually has one to four loose mesh “vegetable” sacks temporarily attached. Each sack can hold 35 to 45 pounds of crawfish.

Crawfish in these harvests will have avoided being eaten by herons, egrets, and raccoons.

Bart demon-strated how the hydraulic pump lifts the front of the boat to climb over the levee or lifts the back part of the boat (in the photo) to lower it into the next pond. Each succeeding pond is 2-3 inches lower than the next the further it is from the pumps.

So we have learned how the crawfish arrived in Louisiana and how the local crop is raised. So how do you eat these little mudbugs?

Many moons, many suns ago on our first trip to Lafayette we had dinner at Randol’s Cajun Restaurant and Dance Hall. I wanted to try the boiled crawfish, but had no idea what to do with them once they arrived at the table. So I asked our server if he could show me. Show me he did—along with everyone at the tables immediately around us. Truthfully, I think everyone has their own style. Mine, outlined below, pretty closely follow the official “rules.”

Step One: Grab a crawfish and, with one hand on the tail end and the other on the head end,

twist the tail and pull it apart from the head. Someone recently told me that gently pushing the two ends toward each other makes it easier to extract the meat.

Step Two: Put the head aside. We will return to these later.

Step Three: Gently peel off a few of the top tail shell segments (the ones farthest from the end of the tail).

Step Four: Pinch the fan-like end of the tail with your fingers while carefully pulling the meat from the tail with your teeth and eat. Discard the shell. Wipe fingers and mouth with paper towels. (This process is not 100% successful for me and I often find myself peeling the entire tail shell before popping the tasty little morsel into my mouth. And yes, that tiny nugget of tail meat you see here is all that remains to be eaten after all of this work.)

Step Five: Repeat with another mudbug.

Now for those heads. A true crawfish lover will grab the crawfish head and suck out the juices and the golden fat

or will scoop the fat from the head with the index finger. The head has lots of flavoring so it might be spicy. Wash down with a cold beverage.

Now before I hear a collective YUK, the fat is highly prized and is used to intensify the flavor of many famous Cajun dishes such as crawfish bisque.

Besides, which sends the arrow on the Yuk-O-Meter higher? Crawfish head fat or pineapple on a pizza? Pineapple on a pizza, of course.
*Marcelle Bienvenu is a native of St. Martinville, Louisiana and is the author of Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, & Can You Make A Roux? an authentic look at the cuisine and culture of the people of South Louisiana.

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