Once a rare and wild treat, crawfish has become a tail-twisting Texas tradition
An unusually warm and wet winter brought crawfish season early this year, with the first signs of them fresh, live and by the pound at the beginning of January. And lucky for all you mudbug lovers out there, all signs point to a consistent abundance of them through July.
When is crawfish season?
Unlike oysters, crab and shrimp, crawfish aren’t seasonal because of fishing regulations or potential health risks. Their ideal “season” is much more open-ended and fluctuating, based on when they’re both plentiful enough to be affordable and developed enough to be worth the time to eat.
Cooked in a spicy boil (usually with corn and potatoes), live, shelled crawfish are eaten by twisting the tail away from the body and squeezing or biting the tail meat out one at a time. It’s tedious and sloppy work, but if the tails are fat and juicy, it’s well worth the effort.
Heavy rains and warmer temperatures are perfect conditions for growing big crawdads. So, while the season is usually kicking off by Lent or Mardi Gras in February, when you’ve got a tropical winter like we just had, you’ll start to see them live on restaurant menus and seafood counters a little sooner.
But don’t get them confused with seafood — while you will find crawfish at seafood markets and seafood restaurants, they are fresh water dwellers, found in brooks, streams, rice paddies and swamps. They are even sometimes called “freshwater lobster” (the two are related).
Texas loves crawfish
Crawfish and the recipes and traditions that surround them originate from Louisiana, but today their popularity and demand in Texas have exploded.
But it wasn’t always that way. Jim Gossen, of Louisiana Foods, one of the largest crawfish suppliers in Texas, first tried introducing live crawfish to Texans in 1976 when he opened Don’s Seafood restaurant in Houston. There weren’t many people selling them then, and it took a while to catch on, he said.
“People bought crawfish étouffée, fried crawfish, crawfish bisque … but I would bring in four or five sacks of live ones and maybe have three or four left at the end of the weekend,” Gossen said. “I had to use them as a garnish on the plate just to introduce what they looked like.”
Fast forward to the early 1980s, when Gossen had to add on a deck and outdoor boiling area at his Magnolia restaurant just to keep up with the demand for boiled crawfish, which was topping out at 7,000 pounds a week.
“Bars had them, everyone was selling them by then,” he recalled. “I think it was folks from Louisiana who were the first customers, and then Vietnamese folks, and now it’s a huge deal; they have a bunch of these crawfish places all over.”
The Gulf Coast Vietnamese population, no strangers to spicy seafood, took a special liking to Cajun boiled crawfish. Instead of concentrating the flavor in the boiling liquid, Vietnamese-style crawfish typically comes tossed in a spicy butter sauce or served with spiced mayonnaise or butter-based dipping sauces.
A community tradition
If you’ve never sat around a big pile of boiled crawfish, now would be a great time to try them. Not only are they deliciously spicy and sweet like crab and lobster, the ritual of eating them — much like crab boils or barbecues — is one of the great Southern community food traditions.
Spring weekends mean long tables covered in newspaper, friends and family members and strangers alike all elbow-to-elbow, twisting shells, laughing, storytelling and listening to lively Zydeco music in the background.
It’s a tradition we’re fortunate to have access to — it wasn’t too long ago that crawfish were a rare, wild treat you couldn’t easily find in a restaurant.
“When I was in grammar school, we didn’t eat crawfish out,” Gossen said. “We had a rice farm near Rayne, La., and once a year around March or April, when they’d drain the field, we’d have a bunch of crawfish crawling around, so we’d have a boil.”
The few places that did serve crawfish back then did not consider it a communal affair, offering private rooms separated by curtains to shield diners from each other’s messes.
Today, only about 10 percent of the crawfish on the market is wild from the Atchafalaya Basin, with the grand majority farmed on rice fields, which means we’re now able to enjoy them much earlier in the year, and much more often.
March through May is still generally the “prime time” to get them at the best price, while the supply is heavy and the weather’s good enough to sit out and spend a few hours making a good mess of orange-stained paper towels and spice-covered shells.
There’s plenty of restaurants that serve crawfish dishes in these parts. And here on the upper Texas coast, we’ve got a handful of markets and eateries that ship in live crawfish.
Benno’s on the Beach in Galveston has been perfecting its recipe for 30 years, and it’s proud to serve them big.
“As soon as they can afford to start separating them by size, around March, we start buying the larger graded crawfish to make sure everyone gets nice, big tails,” Manager Tracy Deltz said.
Leo’s Cajun Corner on the island is revered for its crawfish étouffée and crawfish boudin. And The Cajun Greek in Galveston draws crowds for its boiled crawfish prepared with a special blend of spices and served with corn and potatoes.
Pook’s Crawfish Hole in Santa Fe is another place to get your fill. Pook’s serves its corn and potatoes separately so the weight isn’t counted with your order of crawdads. And it sells live crawfish by the sack. If you make it over on a weekend, you might even catch some live music to get you in the mood. Just make sure to bring your own adult beverages — Pook’s is BYOB.
Bubba’s at Tiki, a sports bar and grill near Tiki Island, saves its crawfish boils for Wednesday nights, when it cranks up the Cajun music and rolls out the bucket beer specials. Owners recently added 1,500 square feet to Bubba’s for a lot more elbow room.
Throwing your own boil
If you’d rather buy your own crawdads and have a boil at home, you’ve got to be prepared to make a big mess and have lots of space to work outside. Most of the time these bugs are covered in mud, so prepare a large bucket or kiddie swimming pool to wash them off before you bring them home.
Once you rinse them off, it’s easiest to prepare your boil in a large pot on an outdoor patio stove or burner. If that’s not an option, you can get away with doing it on your kitchen stove as long as you work in small batches. You can find recipes for the boil spice online, or prepackaged in some grocery stores. Start your corn and potatoes first, and then drop in your crawdads and boil until they turn bright red, about five minutes.