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NewCityNet Craw Struck

Digging up the history of crawfish

By Keir Graff

MAY 3, 1999:  Tottering due to a permanently unstable state of equilibrium, the crawfish finds food by touch, crawling along the streambed, grasping prey with his mighty pincers and using as many as three of his five pairs of legs to thrust the food into his mouth. Other times, he hides and uses his sensitive antennae to detect small prey. Though by nature a carnivore, the crawfish will eat anything: snails, insect larvae, worms, dead plant matter, other crawdads - even human flesh. In earlier times, the little fellers were used to clean skeletons for anatomical study. Of course, in turn, crawdads themselves are eaten by nearly anything, from reptiles to frat boys.

Part folksy tourist icon, part sci-fi space monster, the crawfish is indeed an unusual animal. The eyes are on retractable, movable stalks. Five pairs of legs give them an insect-like appearance, though only the fourth pair is used to walk; the second and third sets, which also feature smaller pincers, serve as grasping organs and cleaning tools. Of course, it's the large front pincers that earn the small scuttler much of its respect.

With nearly 500 species of crawfish spanning the globe, names are bound to vary. In fact, even the scientific names differ considerably, but it's safe to say that nearly all crawfish are freshwater decapod crustaceans. More than half the types are native to North America, and a variety of names persists in our vernacular: crawdad, crawldad, crawlfish, mudbug, creek crab, even river lobster.

According to Glen Pitre, in "The Crawfish Book" (1993, University Press of Mississippi), the enjoyment of crawfish cuisine is both ancient and widespread. Aboriginal Australians dined on them 28,000 years ago; comparatively, Napoleon was a newcomer in nibbling on the delicacy. The Russians have no doubt observed some crawfish behavior - to them, "the crawfish position" denotes the missionary position. In contemporary times, however, Swedes are the only nationality whose lust for the critters is as hearty as Cajuns. Most crawfish reach diners through farming, or aquaculture, and eat rice, millet or sorghum, rather than swamp-floor buffet. On the Gulf, the peak of harvesting is March through May. Clearly, the time is right to crack into crawfish.

Most retail crawfish are already cooked. If you buy these, select only ones with curled tails - straight tails mean they were boiled dead and likely have inferior meat. And buy three to five pounds per person, because a shrimp-sized piece of tail meat is all you get.

Grab a box of seafood boil at the grocery, boil the crawdads for ten minutes, and dig in. Use your pincers to twist and pull the tail off, then pinch off the fan at the base of the tail. Bite the piece of meat that extends past the tail shell, then remove the shell. If that doesn't work, peel it like a jumbo shrimp. Sucking the heads for salty "fat" really means you're inhaling the hepatopancreas, but go ahead, some people like it.

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