Speaking off the toque: Sonny Payne, proprietor and self-proclaimed "crazy Cajun cook" of the Happy Cajun Restaurant [2825 NASA Road 1, Seabrook, (281)326-6055; 129 North Tenth Street, La Porte, (281)470-9380].
Q. Cajun cooking without crawfish is unthinkable. Last year's season saw fewer crawfish and higher prices. What sort of season is 2001 shaping up to be?
A. It's been a problem for three years. For the last two years there was a drought. This year there were some spring rains. The season comes in around February or March and is out by June. Last year I was paying triple the old price per pound. This year I'm paying four times the price. Part of it is also that there is more demand than ever before. But it was so bad last year that Breaux Bridge [a Louisiana town near Lafayette and the self-proclaimed crawfish capital of the world] had to import crawfish from Japan in order to hold their crawfish festival. Because of the spring rains, it is going to be a good late season, towards June. The crawfish are bigger by then, but that can be a problem for people who didn't grow up eating crawfish like I did. Getting the meat out of a larger crawfish, which has a tougher shell, like the way the larger older lobsters do, can be a challenge if you have never done it before and especially if you have your Sunday best on. Still, I'm going to go eat a mess of them right now!