We’ve previously covered things to do and places to eat in New Orleans. Now as we get closer to March 14, it is worth investigating the history of these delicious crustaceans.
Crawfish season lasts from late February through early June. Crawfish live and grow in bayous that dot the Mississippi River and its estuaries. Before European settlement, the creeks and lakes of southern Louisiana teemed with crawfish. For centuries, local Native Americans caught crawfish by baiting wooden reeds with venison. They would dip the reeds in the water and pull them up—with crawfish dangling off the reeds. Using this method Native Americans caught these crustaceans by the bushel. Consumption of crawfish spread next to the Acadians. They arrived in Louisiana in the 1750s. The Acadians were French settlers who had been expelled from Canada by the English during the Seven Years War. The Acadians began incorporating local seafood into their cuisine. Over time, these delicious crustaceans became a staple of Cajun cuisine. Local Cajun legends offer a slightly different history of crawfish. They claim that lobsters followed the Acadians down from Canada. When they entered the warmer waters of the gulf, the lobsters shrank to their present, diminutive size.
|Watch out... it'll get you.|
The commercial sale of crawfish began only in the late 1800s. The first recorded harvest of crawfish occurred in 1880. The crawfish, raised in the Atchafalaya Basin, resulted in a harvest of 23,400 pounds, worth about $2,140 (about $51,000 in today’s money). In 1908, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded that Louisiana produced about 88,000 pounds of crawfish per year, worth about $3,600 (about $93,000). The Great Depression of the 1930s drove the price of crawfish down to as low as 4 cents per pound. Technological advancements, including trucking, railroads, and refrigeration allowed for the movement of live crawfish from the rural bayou to urban centers like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The introduction of traps and nets allowed for the collection of greater numbers of crawfish. In the 1930s, Louisiana began to cultivate the production of crawfish on farms. Rice had long been a staple of bayou farmers. In order to gain more income, rice farmers began re-flooding their fields in order to produce harvests of crawfish in the winter and early spring. This practice soon spread across Louisiana wherever low-lying ponds and marshland could be found.
|A typical haul.|
The process of farming stabilized crawfish production. Before farming, the harvest in any given year depended on the water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin. Thus the market fluctuated wildly from year to year. By the mid-1960s, over 10,000 acres of farms were spread across Louisiana. In the decades since, crawfish farms have only continued to grow to approximately 120,000 acres. Louisiana accounts for 85%-95% of total U.S. crawfish production. In 1960, the community of Breaux Bridge was named the crawfish capitol of the world and held a yearly crawfish festival. With the increasing consumption and availability of crawfish its profile began to grow. Restaurants began serving crawfish on their menus and the famed dish, crawfish etouffee was born. The process of eating crawfish then passed in the local consciousness as a way to celebrate local food and served as another way for Louisianans to come together and celebrate their home. Today the industry accounts for 7,000 jobs and about 300 million dollars in revenues.
|The end result.|
The process for cooking crawfish has stayed the same (and this may attest to the longevity of crawfish consumption); get a pot of water boiling (seasoned of course), add the live crawfish, let cook for several minutes. Then eating—well peeling first, then eating—the crawfish on newspaper covered tables until you can’t eat them anymore. It’s a tradition that we look forward to upholding on March 14.