Mudbugs: The Dirty Truth
They were my first crawfish of the season, and they brought back fond memories of Louisiana love affairs and eating Cajun food in the car. (If you throw crawfish shells out of a moving vehicle while crossing the Atchafalaya Swamp, are you littering or recycling?) Itz All Good [6734 Cullen Boulevard, (713)747-4663] uses Zatarain's spice mix, a very popular Louisiana brand that is a little too heavy on the cloves for me. There were also one or two crawfish that were too muddy to eat. I normally wouldn't have complained -- if it weren't for the price.
I seem to remember a three-pound tray of crawfish as the standard order. At $5.95 a pound, a three-pound tray would be a damn expensive snack. I complained to Itz All Good bartender, cook and owner Barbara Jackson. She agreed wholeheartedly. Live crawfish used to sell for 89 cents, but this year she's paying $2 a pound and more. "They aren't as big as they used to be, either." She confided in a low voice that she thought that the high price of crawfish was owing to the Asian seafood markets, which were selling them year-round, thus jeopardizing the supply.
There are a lot of crawfish conspiracy theories going around this year. On the wall at Ragin Cajun Seafood and Po-Boys [4302 Richmond (713)623-6321], there was a newspaper article from the agribusiness section of the Eunice News. Local crawfish farmers in Eunice were complaining that the catch was running a mere 15 pounds per 250 nets. I don't know what that means, but I assume it's bad. The farmers were speculating that the problems might have something to do with a new insecticide being used in the rice fields.
Ragin Cajun gets $11.95 for a three-pound bucket and $8.95 for a half bucket. The menu says the restaurant uses a TexJoy spice blend, one of my favorites, for its boil. The crawfish I got were very clean, maybe too clean. Somebody on the phone at Ragin Cajun told me that they bought their crawfish already purged. I wonder if the crawfish supplier left the batch I sampled in chlorinated water too long or something. The mudbugs tasted a tiny bit watery. Luckily Ragin Cajun serves its boiled crawfish with a side of sauce, so you can dunk them after you shell them. I sat at one of the picnic tables out front with some other crawfish fanciers and discussed the high price of mudbugs. (I noticed that everybody seemed to be eating even the itty-bitty claws this year.) "The Scandinavians are buying all the big ones," somebody complained.
Boiled crawfish are going for $4.95 a pound at Floyd's Cajun Kitchen [1200 Durham, (713)864-5600; and 3111 Chimney Rock, (713)972-1966]. I liked the look of Floyd's. At one in the afternoon, some good old boys had already graduated from beer to mixed drinks, and the noise level was rising rapidly. Floyd Landry was sporting a gimme cap, and he was all over the place, slapping backs and kissing cheeks. I made a mental note to come back soon for some of the fine-looking fried seafood that was coming out of the kitchen. (As you may recall, Floyd once co-owned the original Landry's Seafood House, which was later sold to Tilman J. Fertitta, who turned it into a massive publicly owned chain. See "Food Fight," by Alison Cook, June 30, 1994.)
I read another article, this one hanging on Floyd's wall. The headline read, "Crawfish Season Called Worst in 30 Years." There was an interview with somebody from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Crawfish Research Center. I liked the name of that institution. I briefly imagined working on my doctoral dissertation there: "Hey, not so much mustard seed in the next boil, cher!"
Floyd's mudbugs were perfectly tuned to my tastes. They were clean, but not watery; spicy, but not rip-your-lips-off hot; and aromatic, but with none of that perfumey clove smell. All in all, a fine sack of crawfish. As Floyd passed by, I asked him what happened to the crawfish this year.
"Not enough water... or else it's the chemicals," he said without slowing down.
There is often at least a tiny grain of truth behind a conspiracy theory. So I called the Texas A&M Extension Service in College Station and asked for the crawfish farm adviser. I got Dr. Michael Masser, associate professor and extension fisheries specialist. I asked him which crawfish conspiracy theories to believe.
"Everybody is hurting, and there's a lot of blame flying around. But the shortage of crawfish is actually drought-related," he said. Water levels are low thanks to the very dry winter. And there haven't been many big storms like we usually see in the spring, either. The crawfish just didn't come out of their burrows.
How bad is it?
"I'd say that the catch this year may be off by as much as 50 percent," Masser guessed.
"What about the insecticide theory?" I asked.
"Yes, I've heard that one," he said. He went on to tell me that a new insecticide called Icon, a rice seed treatment used to control water weevils, was recently introduced in the rice fields. Since this year happened to be a horrible year for crawfish, some crawfish farmers thought it was more than a coincidence. But the folk at the Louisiana State University Rice Research Station have already looked into these reports, and they can find no evidence of any connection, Masser told me.
And what about the story that the Scandinavians are buying all the big ones?
"Well, there is a market for jumbo crawfish in Scandinavia, and that has encouraged Louisiana farmers to introduce a grading system," Masser said. So that theory turns out to be partially valid. The Scandinavians are paying a premium for the largest crawfish tails, which are shelled, cooked in dill and then shipped to Sweden.
"But we're talking about a very small market, I'd say less than 1 percent of the whole catch," Masser said.
"Sure, it's only 1 percent," I moaned, "but it's 1 percent off the top! They're taking all the big ones!"
I think the Asian conspiracy theories may be a little backward. A friend of mine stopped off in Cajun country on the way home from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this year to pick up a bag of shelled crawfish tails. Not only did they cost more than usual, but the small print on the bottom of the label read, "Product of China." It doesn't look like the Asians are buying up our crawfish; it looks like we are buying up theirs. The beautiful thing about conspiracy theories is that they give you something to talk about while you're peeling shells.
The good news is that a couple of gully washers could still turn things around. With enough rain, crawfish could come on strong late in the season, and prices could fall dramatically.
It gives you something to hope for, doesn't it?
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