When I’ve written about books in the past in this space, it has been about cookbooks. Today I’m writing about a book by Sam Irwin, “Louisiana Crawfish: a succulent history of the Cajun crustacean.” Irwin is from Louisiana; a journalist and freelance writer with degrees from ULL and a mother from Cajun country. He also worked at a crawfish processing business from 1972 to 1984, starting as a laborer and ending as a buyer and manager. He knows the crawfish world from the inside, in other words.
If you need to know more about his qualifications, Marcelle Bienvenu wrote the foreword, and she does a predictably great job.
The book starts, more or less, in the 1920s when crawfish were just starting to be a commercial crop as opposed to a locals-only affair. Crawfish were abundant in wetlands, and Irwin recounts stories of locals in the New Orleans area who managed to catch enough for a boil without leaving their neighborhoods.
This is a scholarly work, but don’t let that turn you off. By “scholarly,” I mean that Irwin cites sources, often in the form of footnotes, from newspaper articles, the La Agriculture department and others. But at its heart this is a book about families and people and how they work with and enjoy crawfish. It’s the stories that make the book a good read.
Crawfish are an interesting food source. Per Irwin, it takes about 100 lbs. of live crawfish to get 15 lbs. of meat – then you have the shells to deal with. From early days people would add potatoes, corn and other stuff to their boils to stretch the meal. I found some of the vignettes and bits of information from contemporary newspaper articles fascinating. We associate crawfish boils with beer, but in one article from the 20’s, red wine was the drink of choice in Acadiana.
When he talks about the difficulty in actually procuring and cooking crawfish, he asks a question, “Why go through all the trouble? The answer is simple: nothing tastes as viscerally succulent as the tail meat from a big-claw crawfish.”
There’s more about how crawfish are enjoyed around the world, and a bit about how indigenous peoples likely taught early settlers to eat them, but this book is not a detailed study of the crawfish per se, rather it’s about the Cajun experience with crawfish.
There are also a few recipes, such as the author’s grandmother’s recipe for crawfish stew. It includes jarred roux, about which Irwin writes, “Don’t be alarmed – MaMa spent years of her life at the stove stirring roux, and when the first jarred roux became available, she couldn’t detect any difference or taste in her stew. If roux in a jar was good enough for MaMa, it’s good enough for me.”
I know that sounds like heresy, but you can find good, pre-made roux these days. It’s fat and flour, after all, and the keys to a good roux are both the color (how long you cook it) and the consistency (that the whole thing is homogenous, with no burned bits). You can make a better roux at home if you use lard or peanut oil, and if you make it at home you control just how dark it will get. But you aren’t going to beat the consistency. I’m with Irwin and his MaMa on this one.
There’s a chapter on how Breaux Bridge is the crawfish capital of the world, a fair few paragraphs on the crawfish/crayfish issue, a chapter on crawfish festivals and a host of other topics that span history, politics and economics. It’s as much a book about Louisiana history as it is about crawfish, to be honest, and the wealth of primary sources Irwin cites makes it valuable as both.
I’d never heard of Sam Irwin before I read this book, which was published in 2014 by American Palate, a division of The History Press out of Charleston, South Carolina. I’m glad I picked it up, and I would encourage you to do so as well if you enjoy reading about Louisiana history from a culinary perspective.