The first person to ever eat a mudbug surely was a brave soul — and a centuries-long trend-settter. The unknown Boudreaux or Thibodeaux who sized up a crawfish as a potential meal — and spelled it with a "w,” not a "y”— now has a extended family of descendants who have pinched dat tail, sucked dat head and celebrated crawfish as a seasonal, signature delicacy for generations.
We farm them in our rice fields, buy them live by the sacks, boil them in our backyards and eat trays of them elbow-to-elbow with the ones we love.Crawfish are an essential element of Gulf Coast life — particularly in Louisiana, where you get them fresh and buy them from people you know.
WHO’S YOUR FAMILY
An astacologist — that’s a person who studies crawfish; mais, we all done learned a new word — will tell you the creature in question is a freshwater crustacean, a decapod that is part of the Cambaridae, Astacoidea of Parastacoidea families. (We’ve never heard of any of them; they must live over by Ville Platte.)
Three-quarters of the crawfish produced in Louisiana are Procambarus clarkii, or red swamp crawfish. The rest are Procambarus zonangulus, or white river crawfish. There are more than 330 species of mudbugs in the Southeast, all in the Cambaridae family.
Cousins live all over the world — from the 10-pound Tasmanian giant of Australia’s western freshwaters to an aggressive species in China that devours the rice crop. Crawfish are also found in the Pacific Northwest, the Continental Divide and in Arizona reservoirs.
SAY IT LIKE DAT
"Crawfish”is the distinctly Louisiana name for mudbugs. It’s a Cajun variant of "crayfish,”which itself is a corruption of "escravisse”of Old French. In modern- day Paris, though, they pronounce it"écravisse.”In America’s Northeast, they call them"crawdads.”In Southwest Louisiana, we say it the right way.
HOLD MY BEER
Crawfish defend their territory by bowing up their back to show dominance. If an intruder wants to pick a fight, a crawfish will follow him with his eyes — which are mounted on stalks — and flail out at him with pincers snapping.
Crawfish almost always arch up or raise pincers and arches if there’s movement or danger. If it’s not worth a fight, a crawfish may decide to curl its tail under and shoot backward in the water. Expectant females don’t want to be messed with, either. They curl their tail under to to protect the fragile bulge of eggs that cling underneath her.
COOK SOME RICE
As water-bottom scavengers, crawfish can and do eat just about anything — plants and animals, both live and dead. Worms, bugs and larvae are a treat.
So are the eggs of fish, frogs and toads. Crawfish are omnivores in the truest textbook sense — they’ve even been known to eat their own exoskeleton after shedding it.
Louisiana produces 95 percent of the crawfish harvested in the United States. The state "has 1,265 crawfish farms covering more than 182,000 acres,” according to the Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, published by the LSU AgCenter.
The typical crawfish farmer has about 660 acres of land, one-third of which is used for crawfish production."Crawfish are raised using six production systems, and some producers use more than one,”according to the LSU AgCenter. Nearly half of the producers raise crawfish as a single crop. One- fourth double-crop crawfish with rice. Others plant forage or rotate crawfish, rice and soybeans. Farmers flood crawfish ponds to an average depth of 7.4 inches, replacing all or part of the pond water once a season to keep up the dissolved-oxygen level.
The average producer places 15 traps per acre. Then they come in with boats to harvest the crawfish. The 110 million pounds of crawfish harvested each year have an annual economic impact of $120 million. Fully 70 percent of the catch is eaten right here in Louisiana. The rest is sold to lucky people elsewhere.
For all the mudbugs harvested at home, crawfish meat from afar still makes it to the local market. China is among the top exporters."Take note of where your crawfish are coming from,”the Louisiana Seafood Board warns."Some
imported crawfish have high levels of antibiotic residues and other substances that are banned from use in the United States.”
The board promotes in-state seafood of all kinds and pushes for clear
labeling."Play it safe and stick with Louisiana crawfish,”it advises. How can you tell? Flip the bag and look for the labeling."Country of Origin Labels are now required for seafood sold in the U.S.,”according to the board."The seafood’s country of origin and method of production — wild-caught or farm-raised — must be labeled at the point of sale.”
Crawfish are classified by size:
- #1 are the big pawpaws. They equal to 15 or fewer crawfish per pound.
- #2 crawfish translate to 16–20 crawfish per pound.
- #3 bugs are the smallest — 21 or more crawfish per pound.
Plan to feed people at your boil by weight."Figure on roughly four pounds of live crawfish per person,”says the Louisiana Seafood Board."Ten
pounds of whole crawfish yields 1.5 pounds of tail meat.”The board also notes: "Three to four pounds of crawfish with shell serves one adult.”Well, some adults.
POINT OF PRIDE
Besides being good eating, mudbugs are effective marketers for Southwest Louisiana’s food, festivals and music."Crawfish is easily recognizable as one of Louisiana’s most popular menu items, and it’s so much fun to introduce visitors and travel media to the art of eating crawfish,”said Angie Manning, communications director for the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"By far, our most popular video on our YouTube channel is ‘How to Eat a Crawfish,’ having been viewed over 1.2 million times,”she said."Lucky for us, crawfish is vibrant to photograph or video —and as much as we can during crawfish season, we use images of crawfish to entice people to visit.”
The CVB gets people to come for the crawfish, then stay for "the springtime blossoms along the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, as well as the
other cultural activities or casino gaming complexes while they are in town,” Manning said."Crawfish is a staple during our Mardi Gras travel media press trip … and the cameras come out to capture the magic,”she said."Crawfish add just the right amount of spice to the spring.”
Crawfish aren’t just for boiling, of course. The tail meat’s a treat for beaucoup dishes that define native cuisine — etouffee, gumbo, bisque, on and on.
Recipes are found in standbys like Pirate’s Pantry and Marshes to Mansions, the Junior League cookbooks that are fixtures in Lake Charles households.
Some other takes and tastes from around the state can be found on page 8.