Ocean Springs — Some people call them “mudbugs.” While that might not sound very tasty, these mini lobsters called crawfish that make distinctive mounds of mud above their burrow homes are so popular on the Coast, and in many other communities around the state, that it is hard to imagine spring without them.
“You can call them crayfish or mudbugs, but down here in Louisiana, the locals call them crawfish!” says New Orleans chef Emiril Lagasse. “These freshwater crustaceans are fantastic. The season, depending on the weather, runs roughly from January to June, and I never can get enough of them. We boil ‘em, fry the tails, stuff the tails, cook ‘em in an étouffée (an incredible local favorite) and bake ‘em in pies. Hey, I’m not making this up. They are very versatile, and the only rule is that you shouldn’t overcook them. The meat is very delicate, and it should be treated as such.”
There have been efforts to promote an aquaculture industry in Mississippi growing crawfish. And while one grower in Ocean Springs experimented with crawfish for a while, currently all of the crawfish consumed on the Coast come from farms and the wild in Louisiana.
Why aren’t more crawfish grown here?
“Have you ever been over there where the crawfish come from?” asks Buddy Broome, whose family business Broome’s Grocery in downtown Ocean Springs has been selling crawfish for approximately 20 years. “There is about 30 miles of nothing but swamp there around Breaux Bridge, La., where we get our crawfish.”
Breaux Bridge is known as the Crawfish Capitol of the World. One reason why crawfish are grown primarily in this area of Louisiana is that they are double-cropped with rice fields. The tailwater from rice cultivation is often reused to grow crawfish.
You can’t get fresh crawfish at most grocery stores or seafood outlets even on the Coast. But places likes Broome’s that do carry crawfish cultivate quite a following. Broome’s has a separate screened building in the parking lot for cooking the crawfish.
Aromas coming from the crawfish house permeate the air, and are a wafting advertisement downtown that crawfish are in season.
The family grocery store started out 20 years ago doing about five sacks per week. Each sack averages 35 to 40 pounds.
“Now this past weekend I think I did 90 sacks on Saturday and 85 sacks Sunday,” Broome said. “People come from a good distance around if you have a good reputation. About 75% of the business is boiled crawfish, and the rest we sell live.”
Parties are popular
Announce that you’re having a crawfish boil, and it isn’t hard to rustle up a crowd. There is no doubt that crawfish are popular.
“It’s a good reason to drink beer,” jokes Broome. “It is just one of those types of things. People use it to get together. When they boil, they get all kinds of stuff together, the fixings, and have a party. It doesn’t take a lot of work. It’s fun and easy.”
Most people only eat the tails, which have the most meat. And like boiled shrimp, this is a food you have to work for by peeling it first (that just gives more time to visit while eating). Peeling the juicy critters is messy, so often a crawfish party is an outdoor event. Some folks even do without plates. They spread out several layers of newspaper on the table, and dump out the crawfish and fixings like potatoes and corn. After the meal, you just roll up the shells and corn cobs in the newspapers, and the “dishes” are done.
Broome’s is located in Old Ocean Springs, and Sundays when most retail businesses are closed there is less traffic downtown. But during crawfish season, Sunday business at Broome’s picks up by approximately 25%.
Crawfish require proper cooking. Like with boiled shrimp, overcooking is the most frequent flaw, but it also takes just the right seasonings of salt and hot pepper. Broome says some people use Chinese hot peppers, but he prefers cayenne. As for non-spicy crawfish, you won’t find them at Broome’s.
“You might as well get them out of a ditch and eat them if you are not going to put something spicy in there,” he said.
This is a particularly good year for crawfish prices. Broome’s is selling live crawfish for 69¢ per pound. Cooked crawfish is $1.39 per pound. Broome said that is the best prices he has seen in probably five years.
Low prices caused in part by cheap imports of processed crawfish are one reason why crawfish aquaculture hasn’t taken off in Mississippi. But since there is a different market and more demand for live, fresh crawfish, that isn’t the entire answer. Crawfish farming is also very labor intensive. Dr. Ben Posades, associate research and extension professor of economics at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center, said during harvest time it is necessary to collect crawfish every day or two.
“That takes a lot of time and manpower,” Posades said. “And it is hard to make money at the current prices. Louisiana growers already have a market to sell large quantities. They also have lower production costs. A lot of crawfish are harvested from the wild in Louisiana. To be able to make money out of that, you have to have a boat, traps and bait and be able to move the crawfish to the market. The other major source is from the crawfish farms. The crawfish growers have a little greater production prices than harvesters from the wild.”
Crawfish farmers would benefit from higher prices. But, of course, buyers and consumers want lower prices. A flood of imports from foreign countries has taken a big bite out of Louisiana’s crawfish industry. Posades said the glut of imports has reduced crawfish processing in Louisiana by 30%.
“But in terms of live, whole crawfish, there is no way importers can affect that market because you can’t import live crawfish,” Posades said. “The demand is there for cooked, whole crawfish. Probably Southerners eat most of the crawfish, so it doesn’t go much up North. There is not enough supply to move around.”
Some crawfish make their way at least as far North Mississippi. A restaurant in Starkville advertises crawfish on Wednesdays during the season.
“As soon as it hits the restaurant, it is gone,” Posades said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.