Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Crawfish & Catherine

The Dish: Crawfish — Why do we eat mudbugs in Louisiana?
It's crawfish season! 

It isn't spring in Louisiana without an inaugural crawfish boil. Crawfish (not crayfish) season spans  from March to June and the worship of said crustacean and its ritualistic boil is almost a religious celebration.  Because of this time frame, I can't imagine a May graduation party without crawfish. While this alien-looking mudbug holds significance today, it wasn't until recent decades that crawfish boils became common practice.

The red sea-creatures used to be viewed as rural, Cajun cuisine. And, as most Louisianans know, Cajuns were discriminated against until recently. Many of my friends' grandparents remember not being allowed to speak their native Cajun French in school because of prejudice. There has been a revival of Cajun French in recent years, with celebrated French immersion schools popping up around the state. But, what turned this somewhat scorned practice into a spring staple?

After doing some googling, I found that in the 1940s fishing technology made crawfish more available. I also have heard, but could not find related information on google, that the Depression caused Louisianans to stopping turning up their noses at a food source.

I'm not saying people didn't eat crawfish, I have seen etouffee recipes that go back generations.  But, the ubiquitous tradition of the boil is only ~50 years old. And, making it a social event is even more recent.  Since we are crazy about crawdads now, restaurants have gone beyond boiled and etouffee.  Local restaurants now sell crawfish dishes in the form of pie and sushi, just to name a few. (This article from LSU's Legacy magazine features some fun crawfish meals.)

My family enjoying crawfish together in 2007 at my sister's graduation party.  

How to boil crawfish, according to my Dad:

- 50 pound sack of crawfish
- 2 bunches of celery chopped
- 2 bags of onions (3 pounds each).  Cut up 1 bag, keep the others whole
- 1 cup of Cayenne Pepper
- 6 garlic bunches, halved (cut horizontally through the toes)
- 6 bags of crawfish boil
- Box and a half of salt
- 10 pounds of red potatoes (corn too if you want)
- 3-5 pounds of sausage, optional

Wash the crawfish in an outside tub with hose. Flip them over to make sure all of the bait and junk has been cleaned off.  My Dad warned "They're gonna bite you. Just man up."
Bring water in large crawfish pot to boil.
Throw it all in!
Once it boils again, cook 12-15 minutes
Turn it off and let soak in the hot water for 15 minutes
Dump them out and eat!

Tips on eating crawdads:
-Don't eat crawfish with straight tails. It means they were dead BEFORE you boiled them.
- Let some free! As a kid, I would always pick one lucky S.O.B. to set free in a ditch before my dad killed and ate him.
- The proper way to eat crawfish, according to Southern Living magazine.

The Grandma: Catherine 
My paternal grandmother's mom 

I don't have a photo of Catherine. But here is one of Gammie (her daughter) with her granddaughters (and Rasco), Christmas 2008. 

Rounding out my Women's History Month series, I give you my last great-grandmother, Catherine. Honestly, I saved Catherine for last because she has always been a mystery to me. She was ill and out of my father's life when he was growing up and my Gammie lived with ~20 people during the Depression —so her mother isn't usually a main character in her childhood stories.  I thought by putting Catherine last, I would find something out about her in the mean time. But, sadly, nothing ever surfaced.
I think that everyone has a story, and it should be told. So, here is what I know about Catherine — or more appropriately here is a glimpse into her family life.

This is the house the ENTIRE family lived in during the Depression. My boyfriend snapped this photo on Saturday when I explored the Lower Nine for another project. 

Catherine (for whom my sister Julie Catherine is named) was American born of French and Irish descent.  She was one of 11 children. Catherine lived and raised a family in the Lower Ninth Ward during the Depression. Her seven brothers lived in the same house as she and her parents and children in the '30s.  My Gammie has very colorful stories about her uncles who ran illegal lotteries, a still and speak-easy. To know Catherine, is to know this life. And one of my grandma's favorite stories involves Catherine's youngest brother Louis.

Louis may have been my Gammie's (Yvonne) uncle, but they were only a few years apart in age. Louis loved to tease Yvonne. She recalls one day Louis was working on the roof and he decided to toss her a brick for a project he was working on at ground-level.  Obviously, the brick hit her in the head and the scene was very bloody.  According to this familytale, Louis' mother hit him with a broom as a punishment. But mid-swing, Louis' faithful dog took the room in his mouth and ran.

This story is 80+ years old. But, it is just the kind of chaotic scene Gammie uses to convey her childhood.

The little girl in this picture from ~1889 is Catherine's mother (with my great-great-great-grandparents, The Ortets); she was later known to my Gammie as Grandma Meyer. You may recognize this photo from a previous post.

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