Cryptozoologists report that crawfish three feet long live in a remote Japanese lake, but not one of these animals has yet to make its way onto a sushi bar, much less into an étouffée. The largest recorded crawfish, about half that size, live in Tasmania (of course), where they are protected by law, not like that would stop a slick Cajun with a plane ticket and a dozen coolers.
Crawfish are the same thing as crayfish. What distinguishes them from their cousins (lobster, shrimp, crab and krill) is that crawfish live in fresh water, making them the most available crustaceans the world over. They’ve been eaten with relish for centuries. Their popularity in this country is largely restricted to the Deep South, more specifically to Louisiana, for the simple reason that the French people who came to live there (unlike the riff-raff who invaded the rest of the country) were more familiar with crawfish as food than as bait.
God in His Infinite Wisdom provided the French settlers in Louisiana with a vigorous and plentiful species for their tables, the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). Renegade squadrons of these creatures have achieved invasive status all over North America as well as Europe and Asia, and their proliferation in the wetlands surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi provides the basis for a multi-million dollar industry. The Louisiana Legislature designated the charming city of Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959, a title blithely if not pointedly ignored in Mère France, where dishes including crawfish are referred to as à la Nantua.
Gallic enthusiasm aside, it’s worth noting that crawfish play a significant role in the cuisines of Scandinavia, where on the first Friday in August people gather outside, sing, eat mass quantities of crawfish and drink prodigious amounts of vodka, beer and aquavit. In that part of the world, the cooler taste of dill (seeds, crowns, leaves and stems) is used to flavor a bouillon of sugared vinegar, beer and water. Cajuns also eat crawfish in public celebrations with plenty of music, beer and booze, which might be the only direct parallel between the two peoples. The most decided culinary contrast is the pungent spices used to season the bouillon in this part of the world. Forget that sissy dill; if you don’t have halved heads of garlic, bay and cayenne in the water, not to mention a lot of socks (sacks of seasonings), corn and potatoes, you’re going to be trussed to a live oak and someone else is going to take charge.
Boiling purged crawfish in salted water seasoned liberally with the spices and aromatics listed above (I always use twice as many socks as recommended, a hefty amount of cayenne and throw in a few lemons, halved and squeezed) is the optimum method for cooking crawfish, and I’ll be the first to tell you they’re best eaten straight out of the pot by peeling the tails and sucking the fat out of the heads. Fresh crawfish are only available February through May, but frozen crawfish meat is available year-round. This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s wonderful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz, (1978), arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the kaleidoscopic world of southern Louisiana; its music, its history and its food.
Melt a stick of butter in a skillet, sauté one small onion, three ribs celery, one small bell pepper and a clove of garlic, all finely chopped. Add 1 large diced eggplant and cook until soft. Add about a cup of chicken stock, a quarter cup sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”), a pound of peeled crawfish tails and enough bread crumbs to thicken into a wet paste. Season with salt, pepper (cayenne, if you want more heat), thyme and basil, pour into a baking dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 until bubbling. This recipe is best served warm, not hot, and even better if allowed to cool and reheated.