Crawfish and Dips
I have traveled around Louisiana for around 30 of my 50 years in one professional capacity or another, and I am very interested in food. Some might call me obsessed, but I prefer to think I’m focused. Wherever I travel, I like to eat the best food I can find, and that’s not hard in Acadiana. Yet despite the time I’ve spent in New Iberia, Lafayette, Abbeville, Jeanerette, Opelousas and all over the swamps and plains, I had not heard until recently about the concept of a “dipping sauce” for boiled crawfish.
When I was alerted to the fact that dipping sauces made of mayonnaise and ketchup were a thing, my first reaction was “pull the other one.” But I did some research and found at least one article that cited the practice, although it and a few others I found suggested that the practice is far from universal. The Louisiana Cookin’ article includes a claim that the practice originated at Hawk’s, in Rayne, started it. If that’s the case it can’t pre-date 1983. In any event, I learned about it when my wife forwarded a social media post to me by a fellow named Norby Chabert, a state senator from Houma. Here is what he said:
“Grew up on a crawfish farm. Had crawfish boils least once a weak Mardi Gras til Memorial Day the 1st 19yrs of life. Every home boil & restaurant in Acadiana makes a custom mayo & ketchup based dip. If you never had it try eating your over spiced crawfish with actual Cajuns. #WeDip”
I will not argue with the food culture of Acadiana, and I will not disparage a Cajun for being Cajun, not least because the art director of “New Orleans Magazine” is Cajun and while I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I am not so stupid as to cross her. (Love you, Tiffani!)
Nor will I dispute Messr. Chabert’s account of his experience in eating crawfish in Acadiana. But I do take umbrage with two aspects of Mr. Chabert’s tweet, those being the implication that people outside of Acadiana “over spice” our crawfish and that one needs to eat crawfish with “actual Cajuns.” Because both of those things are nonsense.
First, we spice crawfish properly in New Orleans. If you are from someplace, even in Acadiana, where “spice” is not a habit, you may be surprised by how much flavor we get into the bugs by boiling them, letting them sit in the boil, and then draining them. You might also be surprised by some of the things we add to the boil, but if you are dipping your crawfish into mayonnaise and ketchup after peeling them, maybe you don’t really want to taste the crawfish in the first place?
I would advise you to take a deep breath and have a cold beer handy (if you are of age and indulge) and then go about the business of eating crawfish. I would further suggest that if you feel the need to “dip” your crawfish into anything, that you should dip them into your mouth, chew, then swallow them. Re-engage with your beer as necessary, and perhaps enjoy potatoes, corn, garlic and whatever else your host has decided to throw into the boil.
Second, while I have no doubt that the practice of boiling crawfish originated in and amongst the Cajuns – at least as we understand the practice of boiling crawfish, because let’s be honest, there were people living in Louisiana and eating crawfish long before the Cajuns arrived – it is a thing that transcends geography, and it is not “a Cajun thing” any longer.
Here are the ingredients for a proper crawfish boil:
Some of those friends may be Cajun, but that’s lagniappe; it’s sure as hell not a requirement.
I am not writing to disparage Cajun food or traditions, though I do have my doubts about the “ancient” origins of dipping sauce for boiled crawfish. I am writing because I do not appreciate anyone telling people from New Orleans that we over spice our crawfish. Even if, from time to time, we do.
And after all, there are people eating crawfish all over the world. It’s a huge thing in Sweden, of all places, and indeed in most Scandinavian countries. In Spain they call them “river crab,” and just recently I bought a very complex dried noodle soup from an Asian market in which crawfish were called “river snails.”
Here in New Orleans and in Texas there are multiple places to try crawfish cooked by Vietnamese chefs in which the bugs are generally finished with spiced butter. It’s different but delicious and no less “authentic” a way to enjoy crawfish than any other.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not opposed to the idea of eating crawfish in a way I didn’t grow up eating crawfish; I’m opposed to someone telling me that there is a “right” way to eat crawfish.
As for me, I am going to go catch some wild crawfish before long and I will probably make a bisque, but whatever I do I can assure you I will not be dipping any part of my catch into a sauce made of mayonnaise and ketchup. Because that is not the right way to eat crawfish. ::wink::