March 21, 2012 10:55:14 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Crawfish, mudbugs, crawdads, crayfish -- call them what you will, the prolific Cajun delicacy is once again on the move into the Golden Triangle. Late winter into early spring heralds a new harvest of fat crustaceans generating a buzz, especially with fans who have been impatient for their arrival.
"We'll even get people start calling in January to ask when we're going to start having crawfish," said Bubba Huckaby, who, with his brother Brian Huckaby, operates Huck's Place on Fifth Street South in downtown Columbus.
For most Mississippians, crawfish are a seasonal fling on the dinner table or at backyard boils. But in Louisiana, crawfish are woven into Cajun culture. There, they catch them, raise them, eat them, sing about them. They even adopt them as an official state crustacean (July 1983). And for a critter that impacts the state economy to the tune of $120,000 million annually, the adulation seems about right.
Louisiana leads the nation in crawfish aquaculture, with approximately 1,600 farmers producing around 90 percent of the U.S. domestic crop. Several hundred fishermen harvest crawfish from natural wetlands, as well.
A respectable number of all those mud dwellers find their way into the Magnolia State, to restaurants like Huck's that add crawfish to the menu from some time in February through early to mid-summer.
"Around the end of February is about the earliest we like to start, from the perspective of availability, size and price," said Chef Huckaby. "Before that they're more scarce, and you've got Mardi Gras going on, for example, and that hits the supply pretty hard."
That demand has so far been felt at area restaurants. Huck's Crawfish Night on Thursdays draws a big crowd.
"You'd be amazed at the number of people who come," said Huckaby, who expects to continue Crawfish Night until Memorial Day or soon after. "It's such a short season; I think that drives people to want them."
Crawfish, which are shipped in live, tightly bagged in mesh sacks, are ready to serve in about half an hour from cooker to plate at Huck's. They're prepared adding seasonings, new potatoes, corn coblets, andouille sausage and small button mushrooms. Diehard devotes will suck the head, as well as twist the tails to get at the meat.
Huckaby is gradually increasing the number of pounds ordered weekly as the season gains hold and demand increases. "So far, we've been running out at about the right time on Thursdays," said the chef, who expects to cook up about 460 pounds of crawfish Thursday.
Preaching the gospel
In Starkville, Kurt Crissey is facing one of the busiest times of his year. As the owner of The Crawfish Co. (and several other businesses, including two Rosey Baby restaurants), he moves between 20,000 and 25,000 pounds of crawfish a week around the country at the season's peak. He supplies restaurants and individuals, and maintains several mobile kitchens for catering.
The Mississippi State University alumnus acquired a liking for the crustacean when he was a student many years ago and saw a niche to fill.
"My Louisiana farmers that grow crawfish ship it wherever we need it to go -- Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida ... If you were in Denver, Colo., and wanted to have a crawfish boil, I'd fly 'em to Denver for it," stated Crissey. "We're one of the largest dealers of crawfish; we've grown significantly since we introduced it to North Mississippi as a commercial entity almost 30 years ago."
At his Rosey Baby Restaurant in Starkville (the other is in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) "crawfish night is every night" until about July 4. "But we've gotten them before as early as November, and the last two years have been able to go into August," noted Crissey.
Overseeing a widespread network of farmers and customers is hectic, especially in the spring, but there are light moments. Crissey laughed, recounting a call he once got from the Atlanta airport
"Here's this big, international airport, and I had a big shipment going out -- and I get a call from the cargo crew saying, 'We knocked over all your boxes of crawfish with a forklift and they're everywhere!'"
Naturally, the businessman in Crissey was upset about losing the product, "but I had to laugh at the same time, imagining the Atlanta terminal being taken over by my crawfish. ... I told them the only thing they could do is try to scoop 'em up and have a crawfish boil."
He feels his efforts have increased consumption outside of Louisiana, the "crawfish capital of the world."
"When I started The Crawfish Co., at that time, of the world crawfish supply, I'd say about 85 percent came from Louisiana. And of that 85 percent, 65 percent was consumed within the borders of Louisiana. Now, I feel like we've changed that drastically. We have a lot of crawfish going all over the place now."
Expect Louisiana to maintain the crown. Crawfish farming has never caught on in Mississippi. Land costs, labor costs, and access to natural populations of crawfish are among the factors.
"It's a very labor intensive business," said Crissey, describing crawfish farms he's visited, watching "guys pull (predator) snakes and snapping turtles out of ponds right into their laps."
"These people really live off the earth," he continued. "It's so ingrained in them for so long. They've grown up in that culture, expecting to do what they do. They're really the salt of the earth. It's really interesting, and it's been a lot of fun ... I love to spread the gospel of crawfish."
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Makes four servings
1 stick butter
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers
1 pound peeled crawfish tails
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped green onions
(Source: Emeril Lagasse, foodnetwork.com)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
6 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 pound peeled crawfish tails
1 (8 ounce) package processed cheese food
1 cup half-and-half cream
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
1 pinch cayenne pepper, to taste
1 pound dry fettuccini pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook pasta in boiling water for 8-10 minutes o until al dente; drain.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.