You say crawfish, I say crayfish. Crawfish! Crayfish!
I haul him out of the water. He doesn’t come without a fight and he really wants to finish his bacon. The feel of his claws dragging through the silt trembles up through the taut string until suddenly he loses grip and bloop, he plunges into the air still gobbling smoked pork. He is a North American Signal crayfish and he is angry. His boxing glove claws flick up sharply in the air as I loom over him. The undersides of both of these claws flash a tight, bright red, a warning to his bacon benefactor to back the fuck off but leave the streaky smoked. I don’t take the hint and reach forward. He flips his tail sharply and leaps backwards rather impressively but he has underestimated the extent of evolution above water and I catch up with him a half step on. I kneel down and assess him. He assesses me back.
I mutter, grabbing his tail and stabbing him through the head. A viscous green slime bubbles out around the knife blade. Alarmingly though, the crayfish shows doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with the injuries I have inflicted on him and continues to wave his claws furiously in the air and scuttle his legs about despite being pinned to the grass. I pull back the knife and look about for the others anxiously.
It’s not dying!
I shout and Russ bounds over to check out the action. He leans over to take a look and pokes at the crayfish with his own knife then assures me it is dying but will just take its time about it. The legs twitch and twitch and twitch. I sit by this brown fold of river and watch on in quiet horror until finally, the movements stop. The crayfish is kaput.
The Signal Crayfish is a big, bad interloper in the UK. They invaded in the 1960’s, taking our rivers, killing our crayfish, gobbling up resources. If our native White Clawed crayfish could vote, they’d definitely vote out. That said, they are also know as the European Freshwater Crayfish so it’s complicated. The Signal Crayfish was foolishly introduced in an attempt to supplement stocks of more ethereal looking Noble Crayfish who were suffering with the crayfish plague. The Signal Crayfish has never looked back. It eats everything, bullies and kills mercilessly and has decimated populations of our native species. When it isn’t wreaking havoc on the locals, it is building enormous burrows in the mud which cause river banks to collapse. It is like the Donald Trump of the crayfish world and consequently, conservationists encourage gleeful retaliation by a knife bearing British public.
By the end of our 60 minute killing spree, we have a line of the cherry clawed bastards jerking their last in the grass. Stocks are down apparently, our friends suspect a farmer’s over zealous application of pesticides to a nearby fields and subsequent run-off in to the river. Last time they came, they caught many, many more.
Can we eat them?
I ask, hopefully. Marion looks at me and shakes her head in disgust.
No! We’re not eating them! Disgusting.
Russ, a bunny blasting forager himself, shrugs.
Be a bit muddy I think.
He says and we leave it at that.
This scene comes back to me as I sit down at a table in a small, deserted crawfish joint called ‘Cajun Cookin’‘ in Natchez, Mississippi a year or so later. We are newly married and feeling a bit special because of it, up for a feast. The restaurant is glossy with melamine and chrome and a big, plastic menu board of the type only used in American diners adorns the wall. They must buy in the the individual black letters and peg them in to the board. Often they run out of the right letter and improvise, perhaps turning an M the wrong way up or just flargantly mispelling the word instead. Here, a foreign language of foodstuffs decorates the menu; muffaletta, po, gator sausage. We can have fried oysters, catfish or soft shell crab if we wish but we are not here for them, we are here for the crayfish. Here, they are known as crawfish and there is no hesitation about gobbling a great pile of them up.
Cajun cuisine is simple, spicy and meaty. The name ‘Cajun‘ is a corruption of the word ‘Acadian‘ and describes the French colonists who fled to Louisiana from the Acadia region of Northeast Canada after the British booted them out in the mid 1700’s. The steamy climate of the bayou forced the Acadienne’s to abandon their old cuisine and create something new. Ever resourceful, they simply used what was all around them such as alligator, frog, rabbit and snake and boiled it up with a wild variety of local herbs and vegetables including bay, cayenne pepper, oregano and sassafras and created a whole new menu. Today the Cajuns of Louisiana sit down to gumbo, jambalaya, boudin and étouffée. One of the stars of these dishes is the humble crawfish, ubiquitous to the local rivers and easy to catch. The Crawfish Boil is what we have come for today.
The owner of Cajun Cookin’ is a laid back Louisiana man, cheerful, grizzled face prickling with salt and pepper beard. He glides out from the kitchen and rests his arms across the red counter, welcoming us in with warmth. When I knock over a menu stand and scrabble to pick it up again, he waves his hand languidly proclaiming I can just go on and leave it there. He calls me ‘baby’. He calls lots of people baby.
A two and a half pound crawfish boil, baby!
he yells kindly to his chef in the kitchen when we have ordered then turns back to us to ask if we have had crawfish before. I shake my head, dismissing previous chilly Pret a Manger offerings out of hand. He explains that there is a way of getting in to the crawfish without making a giant mess of things. He is just getting started on the explanation when the chef appears from the kitchen. She smiles, eyes lowered to the food and puts down an enormous polystyrene box piled high with venomous looking, leggy insects. I am immediately repelled. There are hundreds of them and they are horrifying. There are thready antennae tangled up amongst thousands of legs and claws. They are a dark, dangerous red colour and they remind me of a box of maggots or a plague of locusts.
Oh wow! Yum!
I cry enthusiatically. Jamie looks peturbed but he has his back to Paul, the owner so it is I who must take up the slack.
Delicious! So many of them!
I say, a little desperately. Paul smiles and watches as we each pick up a crawfish. I turn my over wondering what to do with it.
You gotta pinch it baby.
Says Paul and comes over to our table, unable to bear the sight of two tourists making a hash of his crawfish. He plucks one from the top of the pile, swiftly pulls off its head, sucks the out the juices and lays it to one side. He peels the first ring of shell away and pinches the end of the tail. With that he deftly pulls the delicate mouthful of meat from the shell and pops it in his mouth. He stands there chewing and smiling, waiting for us to follow suit.
It proves easy and within 25 minutes we have dispatched the whole, rich, delicious, spicy pile in to our bellies. We have chowed down all the potatoes and rings of glistening sweetcorn that come with a traditional crawfish boil and now are surrounded by piles of empty shells and frayed corn cobs. I am blissfully full and Jamie, eyes wide with the discovery of a new foodstuff, is grinning in delight.
Y’all enjoy that?
says Paul from his spot behind the counter. We nod enthusiastically and I explain that in Britain we have been instructed to kill these little blighters but that no one really eats them. That’s all about to change now.
How do you make it?
I ask breathily. A twinkle appears in Paul’s eyes. It is obvious that this is a suject close to his heart.
Well you need your Cajun spice blend…
He begins and soon I am ready to make it myself.
Cajun Crawfish Boil
Bring 10 litres of water to the boil on the stove.
Meanwhile put 3lb (1.3kg) live crayfish in a bucket and fill with water and 4 teaspoons of salt. Stir them around a bit (not with your hands!) and leave for 3-4 minutes. Drain the water and refill with fresh. Repeat, alternating between fresh and salt water while your water comes to the boil. This will help the crayfish purge any mud they have in their shells. Don’t let them sit too long underwater as they need to breathe occasionally. Remove any dead crayfish you find floating about in the bucket.
Whe the water has reached a rolling boil, add 8 teaspoons of Cajun spice blend (recipe below) and allow to boil for 4 minutes. Squeeze 1 lemon in to the water and drop the empty lemon halves in to the pot too. Add 4 whole red potatoes- they should be approximately the size of a lemon, one onion sliced in half, a cob of corn cut in to four and 200g of smoked sausage cut in to 2 inch slices. You can use any smoked sausage but the best would probably be kielbasa from your local Polish deli.
Boil for ten minutes until the potato becomes tender.
Maintain the rolling boil and carefully add the crayfish avoiding their angry nips. Boil for a further five minutes then turn off the heat and allow to sit for 20 minutes so the crayfish can take on the flavour of the spices.
Drain the contents of the pan and serve up on trays or simply tipped on to a newspaper covered table.
Cajun Spice Blend
- 2 tablespoons onion powder – surprisingly available at most supermarkets
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder – as above
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons dried basil
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground white pepper (or 2 use tablespoons ground black pepper)
- 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 5 tablespoons paprika
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
Mix ingredients together in a jar and keep sealed tight until use.