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Rediscovering Louisiana Crawfish Bisque
In 1957, a feature in Holiday magazine described ladies dining on bowls of crawfish bisque at Galatoire’s. The article was already a relic by the time I read it years ago, but it stuck for its description of the women delicately employing either cocktail forks or pinkie fingers to scrape the stuffing from the crawfish heads bobbing in the bowls before them, and then gingerly hanging the empty heads along the edges of their cream soup bowls in a fashion that reminded the writer of a string of pearls.
But there’s nothing simple, nothing tidy, about crawfish bisque. Not the arduous process of making it, the messy barbarism required to eat it, nor the lengths to which one must now go to.
“In our grandmother’s time making bisque – which only took place during crawfish season – was at least a two-day process,” says Poppy Tooker, host of NPR’s “Louisiana Eats!” “Granny would have started with a sack of live crawfish, which she would have purged with a saltwater soak. The crawfish would then have been boiled and peeled before the heads were washed, scrubbed, dried, stuffed, baked and slowly simmered in the soup. From the start of the process until you finally eat the stuffing from the head requires handling each head seven times.”
Galatoire’s stopped serving the laborious dish in the mid-1960s. Most other restaurants followed suit around the same time. But there are exceptions.
Bisque made from a generations-old Pierce family recipe that originated in the Bayou Lafourche area is always on the menu at the Bon Ton Café. “We are able to do it because we’ve been getting cleaned heads and tails from Bona nza Crawfish in Henderson since the 1960s,” says Wayne Pierce. “It is still a pretty big job to make the gravy, make the dressing and stuff the heads, but it’s doable. There is no way we could do it if we started with live crawfish."
Each year in early April Tina Cockerham starts stuffing the 10,000 pre-cleaned crawfish heads L’il Dizzy’s Cafe will need for the 3,500 or so portions of bisque sold annually at their booth at the Jazz & Heritage Festival. “I’m on the phone with her every day from the Fest,” says Wayne Bacquet, L’il Dizzy’s chef and owner, “and I feel real bad when I have to say ‘T, it’s time to get on it again. You’ve got to stuff some more heads.’ But people want it: They want that bisque. We put three in every bowl; two if the heads are really big.”
Concocted using Wayne’s wife, Janet Bacquet’s, recipe, Li’l Dizzy’s crawfish bisque is of a distinctly Creole style due to a base of peanut butter-colored roux that’s cut through with the addition of a touch of tomato sauce. The rusty-hued stew is offered as a special every Friday during Lent.
It was from her grandmother, Naomi Williams , that Faye Antoine learned to make her crawfish bisque. “She was a domestic worker for a family that loved her bisque so much they wanted a supply that would last them until the start of the next crawfish season,” Antoine says. Not one to take shortcuts, each week from the beginning of crawfish season until a week or so after Easter, Antoine purchases a sack of live, wiggling mudbugs and works her way through what is arguably the most labor intensive dish in the Creole culinary canon. She includes intact claws in the crustacean-crowded stew she makes at her Algiers home to sell in Styrofoam pints or quarts at Honey Whip Donuts , her husband Reyna Antoine’s nearby sweet shop on General Meyer Avenue. “I really enjoy doing it,” she says. “It’s a ritual; it reminds me of my grandmother. I also love the taste. Others do too and it’s so hard to find, so it’s worth it to me. This is what it means to cook with love.”
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Bon Ton Café: 401 Magazine St., 524-3386, TheBonTonCafe.com
Honey Whip Donuts: 4801 General Meyer Ave., West Bank, 398-0950
L’il Dizzy’s Cafe: 1500 Esplanade Ave, 569-8997
Raw Republic: 4528 Magazine St., 324-8234, RawRepublicJuice.com