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Crawfish vs. crayfish

NolaVie introduces new content partner LANote.org. Run by freelance writer, author and preeminent Louisiana crawfish historian Sam Irwin, LANote features a curated collection of agricultural and cultural content pertaining to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Though crawfish season is winding down to its seasonal close, the national dialectical debate “craw-fish vs. cray-fish” remains. Irwin and guest blogger Dennis Lanning take on the controversy.

Louisiana_crawfish

 

Though the crawfish versus crayfish debate should have ended when Governor Earl K. Long proclaimed Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World when he signed House Concurrent Resolution No. 17 on March 9, 1959, I’m happy to see that mention of the Cajun Crustacean still provokes passion, debate and even fury.

Even before the mad governor settled the issue, the word crawfish had already won out over crayfish. During my research for Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, I learned that the word crawfish may have been first used to identify the decapod by naturalist Constantine Rafinesque in 1817 in Florula, Ludoviciana. Rafinesque, of French/German descent and born in Istanbul, was  documenting American flora and fauna in the Ohio Valley (Jerry G. Walls – Crawfishes of Louisiana). Apparently, Rafinesque heard the word crawfish being used by the frontiersman of the Appalachians. (1817 — is that too early to begin using the the term hillbilly and/or redneck)?

When the Cajun French of the Atchafalaya River and Creole French of New Orleans began building the crawfish industry in the 1920s, they would have used the French word écrevisse (ay-cray-veese) for crawfish. Crayfish, when pronounced Cajun-style (cray-feesh) is much closer to the word écrevisse than crawfish.

Biologist T. H. Huxley used the term
crayfish in his scientific tome The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study
of Zoology (1880) and crayfish became generally accepted in scientific
writings. But due to the popularity of the Louisiana crawfish, crawfish is also
widely accepted as well.

But let’s give credit where credit is due. The French speakers of Louisiana
gave crawfish to the world. The French in Europe had a long tradition of
enjoying crawfish as a delicacy and brought their love of crawfish to
Louisiana. The English never liked the French much (see Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and they didn’t eat crawfish either, according to geographer and ethnologist Malcolm L. Comeaux in his Historical Development of the Crayfish Industry in the United States (1974) paper. Glen Pitre’s wonderful The Crawfish Book has a lively discussion of the etymology of the crawfish, but ironically, an American word is used to describe French Louisiana’s most famous delicacy.

Be that as it may, one thing is clear: the Cajun Crustacean is conquering the world one epicurean at a time.

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Guest blogger Dennis Lanning and I met only once. He’s an avid mountain biker like me, and when two cyclists meet on the trail head, modest braggadocio ensues. When I learned Dennis was a freelance journalist, our online friendship continued. Maybe one day we’ll share some oysters at Shuck’s down in Abbeville.

Dennis responded when I put out a call for crawfish stories. Here’s what happens when a Yankee doesn’t pronounce crawfish just right. It’s another tale of the crawfish.

Hey, Yankee. It’s CRAWWWWfish not CRAYfish!

by Dennis L Lanning

After years of passing up this part of the country, for reasons unknown and to my great regret, I vowed to visit every town up and down the Mississippi from NOLA to Baton Rouge on both sides of the river. There’s a lot of history, famous locals and great food here and I set out to discover it all.

As a long-time James Lee Burke fan, I wanted New Iberia to be one of the first stops on my odyssey after leaving I-10, heading south towards the river towns. I got a motel room out by the 4-lane and made daily forays to Main and St. Peter Streets, catching the local sights Burke uses as backdrops to his novels, including The Shadows, Bayou Teche, the Jesus memorial, Avery Island, and, of course, Books Along the Teche. This is the local source for everything JLB, including a nifty little walking tour-map of those landmarks incorporated into his masterful writing about this corner of Louisiana.

Driving back and forth along Center Street over those few days, I kept passing by a little white shack, set back from the road and appearing to my urban eye as ready-to-be condemned. Cars would frequently pull in and out, and finally the difficult-to-read signage piqued my curiosity enough for me to stop and check it out. I recall seeing something like: T-Bob’s Boil House. Not having a clue what a “boil house” was, I decided to go inside. Walking up a couple of creaky steps, opening the screen door and timidly peeking inside, I saw that it didn’t look much better than the outside, from what I could see through the pinkish, pungent steam permeating the air.

I was looking at the scribbled menu board hanging on the wall when a giant apparition appeared out of the mist. He said, “Hep ya?” “Yeah, I want to try some “CRAYfish,” I said. Looking me dead in my eye, with an expression of mirth and mayhem, he exclaimed, “CRAWWWWfish!” “Yeah, yeah, of course, “CRAWWWWfish.” I began blabbering apologies and feeling like I had just been scolded by my second grade teacher for forgetting to raise my hand to go to the toilet.

To avoided feeling even more insipid in front of the sweat-laden boil-master, whose once-white t-shirt was covered with bloodlike stains from their “mix,” I ordered a 5 pound sack – with corn and potatoes, not having the slightest idea what I was doing. When I asked, “Is it spicy?” he smiled that wicked little grin again and said, “You a Yankee better stick with the ‘mild’.” He told me to come back in about 10 minutes and my order would be ready.

I drove over to a convenience store for something appropriate to drink with my anticipated crawfish feast. Unfamiliar with Louisiana beers, the bee-hived redhead behind the counter suggested something from Abita Springs Brewing Company, only a few miles down the road. So I bought my first 6-pack of Abita Amber and went to pick up my order.

When I came back, I saw him stirring this huge cauldron of boiling liquid filled with bright red shells. He looked almost happy to see me and sort of smiled as he handed me a hot and heavy brown paper bag with steam and exotic aromas seeping out. All by itself, my brain had signaled my mouth to start watering and I felt pretty silly drooling on myself while trying to pay the bill.

I don’t remember now how much it cost, but by weight and volume I do recall it was a paltry sum for what later turned out to be like finding buried treasure. You don’t know what you’ve found until you see the bounty inside. Worrying that the paper bag would leak through, I rushed back to the motel for my crawfish initiation (but, no need to worry, inside the traditional brown paper bag was a leak proof plastic liner).

Where I come from crawfish (pronounced crayfish) are used as bait and there are no celebrations if you find one. It goes into a fish’s mouth, not yours. Could this be a reason why southerners have such a low opinion of northerners? Obviously, we have little appreciation for some of the finer things in life. Well, this is one Yankee who learned better, right at the source.

Ripping open the bag, I was blasted by the intense aroma which quickly permeated the room, while the boil liquid spilled over the table edge onto the rug. My dog Boomer, who travels everywhere with me, sat entranced, drooling all over my shoes and licking the carpeting. Gathering a pile of napkins and my 6-pack of Abita, I made my first attempt at eating those little red beauties.

I probably should have asked how to properly eat them, but I already felt pretty intimidated. It only took a few to figure out the process, after which I was in crustacean heaven, up to my elbows in heads, shells, red seasoning and burning lips. The “mild” mix was the hottest thing I had ever eaten; thankfully the smooth, rich amber ale cooled me down. Discovering the corn and then the potato at the bottom of the bag, I alternated between a few crawfish, then some potato or corn. While also spicy, their starchy sweetness helped alleviate the painful romance going on in my mouth.

Ecstatic over my crustaceans and craft beer, and wondering how long it might take me to eat 5 pounds, I looked down at Boomer sitting quietly next me, with that expectant stare he has when he patiently waits for his share of whatever special item I might be enjoying. In this situation the aroma was so intoxicating that he could not control the volume of drool running out of his mouth.

He really wanted what I was eating this time, even though he didn’t know what it was. Boomer is more than a dog; he’s been my faithful travel companion since 2004 when he adopte
d me at the Utopia Animal Rescue in Medina, Texas. Since then he’s covered over 100,000 car miles, living in motels, tents and at times the car and sharing a myriad of meals. He has even written a book about his travels, called, MUTTweiler: An AutoDOGography, available on Amazon.

Generally, I will not give him anything spicy, but those bright red beauties must have sure looked good to him because he eagerly wanted his share. When I reluctantly gave him a sample, he was hooked too. And never mind the heat; he had cayenne pepper stains on his paws and a smile on his face! Only now, instead of DogBreath – I called him FireBreath!

As I sat breaking off heads and sucking the meaty jackpot out of the remnants of that 5 pound bag, I realized how empowering even the smallest new experience can be. I had lived half my life in New York and the other half in California. It had been rich and rewarding in the good ways. Yet here I was, deep in the heart of Louisiana eating little spicy, boiled crustaceans for the first time and thinking this is nirvana. This feeling is more than simply the sense of having had something good; it transcends the usual sensations of smell, taste and satiation to lodge somewhere in your brain, so that the moment stays fresh, and in the present forever. I could not have been happier then or now, in recollection. It is thrilling to realize such a small experience can instill such enchanting memories.