After the waters began to recede from the great flood of 1927, some refugees who had spent time at a Red Cross camp began to return to their homes in rural central Louisiana. When they got to their houses, everything was bad. The water lines reached the ceiling of their damped, mildewed homes. The flood had overturned jars of cooking lard, leaving a coating of the grease on the wet walls. There were warnings about possible outbreaks of tetanus. The only food they had was what they brought with them. And then, to make matters worse, the high waters had driven out crawfish. Their yards were filled with the scampering mudbugs.
Back then, crawfish was considered to be a low-life food, even to people who had nothing else to eat. But returning refugees seldom have the luxury of being picky, so they reluctantly gathered the critters, tossed them in a pot of boiling water, added salt and waited for the crawfish to turn red.
They didn’t know about cooking the crawfish with spices and adding garlic, potatoes and corn to the boil, which was just as well because they didn’t have any of that anyway. They also didn’t know the crawfish would one day gain celebrity status as a Louisiana dish, nor could they imagine that “suck the heads’ would become a phrase sold on t-shirts and posters. And certainly they had no idea that the crawfish they shooed away would one day be such a hot item that crawfish tails would be imported from China just to satisfy the demand even at some of the finest restaurants down in New Orleans.
At some point, the lowly crawfish went from outcast to superstar. How that happened is uncertain; although here is my own interpretation of the cultural history of the crawfish.
First there was shrimp. I remember as a kid being dragged to an event at the old Audubon Park swimming pool. My father was participating in a convention in town and one night the delegates were treated to a shrimp boil. I recall what must of have been at least 100 picnic tables set around the pool, and on the tables were boiled shrimp, thousands of them. When people had boils in those days, it was shrimp that was in the pot, served warm and spicy alongside a cold Jax or Dixie beer.
But then the shrimp boils stopped. No more would people gather on Summer evenings, working through a pinkish pile. The big bang that made the shrimp boils extinct was cost — the price had gotten too high, especially as wholesalers began to truck the catch to out of state markets willing to pay the higher price. The feast was over.
Yet there was still a big market of Louisiana people wanting something to boil. Crawfish were plentiful and inexpensive; they became the new shrimp,
There were other forces working that would elevate crawfish to a practical cult status, never achieved by shrimp. One was that, when done right, boiling crawfish could be more flavorful than shrimp ever could be. The act of sucking the head — eventually a part of the local language — added an extra shot of tanginess. Another fact was that by the 1970s, the Jazz Fest in New Orleans was beginning to draw crowds, not only for the music but for the food too — including heaps of bright red crawfish. And then there was the Cajun revival, prompted by Chef Paul Prudhomme who brought the food of southern Louisiana to the world and made the word expect the food of that region to be hot and spicy. Suddenly, tour busses were parking in front of Cajun dance halls, the Breaux Bridge Crawfish festival drew huge crowds, even Shreveport, at the opposite end of the state from Cajun country, started something called Mud Bug Madness.
That anything with the nickname “Mud” can reach such a status shows that inherent star power of the crawfish. And now the prices have increased to shrimp levels. But more than just a food, the crawfish has become part of the culture. Shrimp are universal — crawfish are found in many Southern ponds, but they are identified with only one state. No other food has such a head for business.
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