February 11, 2013 10:52:14 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
In the South, there are few aromas more inviting than the rich smell of perfectly seasoned crawfish coming to a boil. People wait all year for the few short months when they can pop a succulent piece of the flavorful crustacean into their mouth.
Peak crawfish season typically runs from mid-February until June and restaurateurs across the region are eagerly awaiting that first phone call from crawfish farmers to let them know it's time to ready their pots.
In the Golden Triangle, one businessman has managed a way to defy the calendar. Curt Crissey, owner of Brewski's and Rosey Baby in Starkville, has been selling crawfish since Thanksgiving. What started as one man selling crawfish out of a parking lot has exploded into something of a "mudbug" empire.
Crissey began selling crawfish 30 years ago when he says he let a man who was in a tight spot financially set up a crawfish operation in a parking lot of one of his stores. The man sold crawfish for a season and then went back to his native Louisiana. When he didn't return the following year, Crissey decided to take over himself. Over the past three decades, he has developed and perfected his award-winning signature recipe. Most recently, Crissey has begun traveling across the United States setting up satellite crawfish stands to sell the Southern delicacy to those who have never tried it.
People in other parts of the country seem bewildered.
"They look at them like little lobsters but they're not sure what to do with them," Crissey joked.
Crissey owns a restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and has stood behind the counter for hours, peeling crawfish for one uninitiated customer after another just to get them to try them. Once they try the first crawfish, they're hooked, he said.
"I would say 99 out of 100 people will buy them after they've tried one," he said. "You teach one Yankee how to eat crawfish and he'll teach 20."
In Starkville, Crissey said he doesn't have to peel crawfish to lure customers. Once the season hits, locals are lined up around the block to buy the mudbugs by the pound. Crissey said he once sold 20,000 pounds of crawfish in one weekend.
The price of the crawfish fluctuates due to supply and demand. Crissey said that during Mardi Gras and the closer it gets to Easter, the demand goes up, therefore, the prices go up as well. After Easter, the prices go down. Crissey attributed that to the fact that most crawfish come from Louisiana (90 percent, by one estimate) and since the state has a heavy Catholic influence, seafood is in high demand on Fridays when Catholics abstain from eating red meat.
Local restaurateur Beth Gunter said in light of Fat Tuesday, she will be having crawfish at her downtown restaurant, The Gourmet Garage. Gunter, who has been having more Cajun-inspired dishes on her menu, said she chose to feature crawfish because her customers have been asking for it.
"I've had customers asking me to sell it (both) raw and cooked," she said.
Gunter, who said she grew up eating the crawfish, is excited to see how many people will turn out Tuesday just to buy crawfish.
"It's Fat Tuesday and I just wanted to do something different," she said. If Tuesday's sales are high, Gunter said she will consider having it as a mainstay on her menu.
While Gunter is getting her crawfish from a local vendor, Crissey gets his crawfish from a farmer in Louisiana who has been his supplier since the start.
Over the years, Crissey has been increasing his orders to the point where he is given top priority on the first batch of the season. The crawfish are transported to Starkville via refrigerated truck when Crissey then puts them in a mist cooler. Once they leave the cooler, the crawfish are put in a water bath so they can swim around and remove any remnants of sand from their shells. Crissey said he uses three different seasoning for each stage of cooking.
"We use one for the boil, one for cooking, and one for steaming," he said. Crissey boils, cooks and steams the crawfish 250 pounds at a time.
Crissey said while the seasoning obviously adds flavor to the meat, the fat inside the head of the crawfish is a natural flavor enhancer.
"You have to have the right fat-to-meat ratio," he said. "It just makes it so much tastier."
Crissey said the reason crawfish is only in season for certain parts of the year is due to water temperature. "As the water temperatures rise, the fat turns and it has a gamey taste," he said. "It's not the sweet and delicate taste people are used to."
Most restaurants should have the crawfish in the coming weeks and Crissey encourages people to try them.
"Once you get over the appearance, you'll like it. If you like shrimp, lobster and crab, you will like crawfish," he said.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.