The tiny, peckish crawfish I ate over the weekend at The Hideaway on Dunvale -- my preferred spot for crawfish -- would seem to indicate that although crawfish are available in Houston, crawfish season has not yet truly arrived.
This is a point of contention every year among crawfish lovers, who clamor for the bugs earlier and earlier each season. Spring arriving early in Houston hasn't helped matters, as the first gloriously warm and sunny days after winter are usually an indication that it's time to cake your face in crawfish guts.
"The season used to run from the end of February and it would go into June," says Jim Gossen, owner of Louisiana Foods and the man primarily responsible for introducing crawfish to Houston starting in the 1980s. Crawfish season changes from year to year, and is dependent primarily on water levels in Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin. The state accounts for between 90 and 95 percent of the annual U.S. crawfish production, where rice fields and crawfish farms typically operate as one.
"Now," says Gossen, "they start in November in the rice fields and run until they start planting again for rice." The reason? Demand, which has only increased since the 1980s and shows no signs of slowing down.
Gossen recalls growing up the child of rice farmers in Louisiana in the 1950s and 1960s, when crawfish boils were held mostly at home and rarely in restaurants. If you bought crawfish instead of eating the wild ones that appeared when the levees were cut, they were 17 to 18 cents a pound on average. "Thirty cents a pound was considered very high," says Gossen.
These days, crawfish farmers can get $3 to $3.50 a pound for crawfish when demand is high -- especially demand from Texas.
"I would venture to say that they sell as much crawfish in Houston as they do in Louisiana," says Gossen. "That big demand has really gotten people [in Louisiana] starting to fish them early."
Gossen agrees, however, that just because you can get crawfish this early in the season doesn't mean that you should. Both Gossen and former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh preach a paradigm of crawfish eating in which the best bugs don't typically arrive until after Easter.
This model has its detractors, of course, like former Eating...Our Words blogger and New Orleans resident Jason Bargas, who says that the beginning of crawfish season coincides each year with Mardi Gras -- which has already come and gone. Bargas consistently boils the best crawfish I've ever eaten, which engenders a certain amount of trust.
The experts at Fruge Aquafarms Inc., a crawfish farm in Branch, Louisiana, seem to back Gossen and Walsh up, however. On Fruge's excellent blog, main crawfish man Patrick D. Bonin answers a lot of bug-related questions every day. The question he answered on February 8 was this: "What is the best time of year for crawfish?"
I'm not sure there is a "normal" season, as every season we have had for the past 30 years has been slightly different. On average things on the farm get going in early December and reach a peak somewhere about mid-March. Things then remain steady through mid to late May and tail off into July.
Another way to gauge peak crawfish season is finding out which of your own trusted restaurants are boiling bugs. BB's Cafe started serving crawfish every day of the week on February 13, the day after Mardi Gras. Beaucoup Bar & Grill, however, has not. Neither has Danton's, where chef and owner Danton Nix is famously picky about only serving crawfish at the height of the season.
"My favorite time is always March and the end of April," says Gossen, who agrees that the current crop of crawfish is producing some pretty puny tail meat -- but not for much longer.
"They're telling me that they should start getting much bigger in a week or two," he says. "It ought to be a really good season."
If you can hold out a few more weeks, until the really good crawfish start arriving, you'll find that the wait was worth it: Not only will the crawfish be larger, the price tends to drop as the season goes on. Whereas farmers right now are selling the crawfish for $3 a pound on average, Gossen says, "wait until they're bigger and more abundant, and they may be getting $1.80 or $1.90."
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But if you just can't contain your craving any longer, there's a silver lining to the small, expensive crawfish currently for sale across Houston right now: more meat, which may seem paradoxical, but Gossen explains that a large crawfish has an average meat-to-shell ratio of 10 percent. Smaller crawfish actually boast a ratio closer to 14 to 15 percent.
"A small crawfish with no big claws, you're getting a better ratio of meat," says Gossen. There is one catch, he warns. "You've got to peel more of them."