Crazy ’bout Crawfish

Festivals, Food, Hometown Cooking, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on April 5, 2011
Stuart Englert Pete Berard harvests crawfish from a small pond near Breaux Bridge, La., the Crawfish Capital of the World since 1959

Standing in his flat-bottom boat, Pete Berard pulls a wire-mesh trap from a 10-acre pond a few miles southeast of Breaux Bridge, La. (pop. 7,281), and shakes a dozen lively crawfish into a nylon sack.

“I might make our family a crawfish boil before the season is over,” says Berard, 47, as he throttles the outboard motor toward the next trap. “I’ve got four brothers and four sisters, so it takes about 10 sacks to feed everybody with all the kids.”

In Breaux Bridge—the Crawfish Capital of the World—the freshwater crustacean is as much a part of Cajun and Creole culture as accordion music and seafood gumbo.

Crawfish have been harvested from the bayous and swamps around Breaux Bridge for centuries. American Indians and African slaves introduced the French-speaking Acadians—or Cajuns—to the land lobsters in the late 1700s, and Louisianans have been crazy about crawfish ever since.

“A good hot plate of crawfish and a good cold beer is hard to beat,” says Ray “Crawfish King” Pellerin, 70, a retired Breaux Bridge businessman. “I’ve lived here all my life. We’ve been eating crawfish forever.”

Incorporated in 1859, Breaux Bridge today is the epicenter of Louisiana’s crawfish industry, which harvests about 90 percent of the nation’s annual catch. Breaux Bridge became synonymous with crawfish in 1959 when state lawmakers designated it the Crawfish Capital of the World to mark the town’s centennial. A year later, community leaders launched the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival to celebrate the revered crustacean, which has fed generations of Louisianans in lean and good times, and become a symbol of Cajun culinary pride.

The annual spring festival features Cajun and zydeco music, crawfish races, and literally tons of crawfish cuisine, ranging from boiled and fried crawfish to crawfish jambalaya and crawfish po’ boy sandwiches, plus a crawfish-eating contest.

James Tyler, 57, of Shreveport, La., won last year’s men’s division by peeling and eating 35 pounds of crawfish tails in 45 minutes, and besting his son, Jacob, 22, who lost his crawfish lunch two minutes before the contest ended. “I slowed down because I thought my son had won,” the elder Tyler says. “But when he stopped, I started again.”

Another popular event is the etouffée cookoff, during which teams compete to create Breaux Bridge’s signature crawfish dish. Consisting of butter, sautéed onion and bell pepper, garlic, salt, cayenne pepper and peeled crawfish tails, etouffée, or “smothered” crawfish, first was served to guests at a Breaux Bridge inn during the 1930s.

A Breaux Bridge team composed of Cy Olivier, 34, Lulee Huval, 32, and Shaw Patin, 34, took first place in last year’s etouffée contest, which was judged on three criteria: taste, texture and appearance.

“The key to authentic etouffée is to keep it simple,” says Mike Huval, 54, a three-time cook-off winner. “You don’t want to camouflage the flavor of the crawfish.”

Once considered lowly fare eaten only by subsistence farmers and fishermen, crawfish today is featured on the menus of Breaux Bridge’s finest and favorite restaurants—Café des Amis, Crazy ’Bout Crawfish and Mulate’s—and served at family gatherings throughout Cajun country. Crawfish is particularly popular in Louisiana during Lent, when Catholics abstain from meat and eat fish on Fridays.

“We consume a lot of crawfish on Good Friday,” says Mary Lynn Chauffe, 64, owner of the 1850s Bayou Teche Bed & Breakfast, the oldest building in Breaux Bridge. “It’s a tradition for families to get together for a crawfish boil.”

That’s why farmers and fishermen each year harvest boatloads of crawfish from the bayous, swamps and ponds in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, and why folks in Breaux Bridge pay homage to the celebrated crustacean each spring.

“I’m sure when I’m gone, one of my family members will take over the [crawfish] pond,” says Pete Berard, after delivering a sack of mudbugs to a friend’s doorstep during last year’s Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.