No matter what else you use in your crawfish boil, one crucial ingredient is patience. That’s what enforces the proper timing through the cycles of soaking, boiling and resting the mudbugs, even when everyone is ready to eat, clutching their koozies and staring at the pot.
Patience may be more important than ever right now, thanks to a persistent but deep-running disconnect between the idea of “seasons” in the crawfish game.
The arrival of Lent normally signals the start of crawfish season in Louisiana, at least in people’s minds. As soon as the last Mardi Gras parades roll, the local appetite and the popular imagination turn to crawfish.
But an early Lent and a historically cold winter are combining to seriously affect crawfish supply.
Crawfish has been around, turning up at backyard boils, at seafood markets and at restaurants. But the supply has been inconsistent, the prices have been high and the crawfish themselves have been small. Some examples tumbling out of the boiling pot have been so tiny they make the Perlis Clothing logo look like it was stitched to actual size.
All this is in stark contrast to last year, which brought a bumper crop of mudbugs. The mild winter of 2017 meant crawfish were pouring out of the ponds and wild harvest areas early and often. Prices stayed low, supply remained plentiful.
But that was then, and this year we had a freeze. That arctic cold front that so afflicted New Orleans was just as bad in the great crawfish producing regions of Louisiana, where ponds and wild-harvest areas account for practically the entire American commercial crawfish crop.
Fortunately, crawfish experts say the freeze likely did no lasting damage. When temperatures fall, the animals will burrow deeper into the mud and enter a lethargic, energy-saving state, according to Greg Lutz, a professor at the LSU Agriculture Center's Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge.
The durable creatures essentially survive the cold by chilling out, and they are really at risk only if ponds freeze over for so long that the water’s oxygen levels are depleted. This year’s freeze didn’t last long enough to threaten that.
But while the crawfish are still there, all that time vegging out means they were not feeding and growing. That helps account for the scarcity and small size of the crawfish making it to the marketplace thus far in February. Crawfish could still come through strong this season; it will just take longer to see.
But while the supply shifts with weather, demand is set by something less fickle, and more predictable.
Cooking and eating crawfish is a ritual here; gathering around a pile or platter is a tradition. These social customs are set by something in our minds more than conditions in the field.
If you’re the one who always boils crawfish for the first weekend of Lent, you’re going to boil crawfish for the first weekend of Lent, no matter if that day is in mid-February or early March.
Crawfish, after all, is not just a meal. For some it’s a pursuit, a hobby. There are Louisiana people who are into crawfish boils the way other people are into skiing. It takes skill. It requires gear. It has a season, and you look forward to that season all year.
Arriving at the sweet spot for crawfish is more complicated than powder depth and trail conditions. This year, given Lent’s early start and winter’s unaccustomed ravages, crawfish lovers may want to draw more on that virtue of patience.
Either wait until quality rises and prices drop, as surely they must, or be prepared to pay for the access to early-season crawfish. When you have to dig through piles of tiny little bumble bee-sized mudbugs, just consider it practice for the main bout to come.
And if you hear anyone complaining that this winter harvest must portend a bad season on the way, take the gripe with a grain of salt, and maybe some cayenne, garlic and lemon.
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