Crawfish, Cajuns, and Native Americans: The History of Crawfish Season in South Louisiana
With Lent on the way, one of the biggest traditions in Louisiana is coming - the crawfish boil.
Crawfish are almost synonymous with Louisiana cooking, and it's a fixture of dishes labeled as "Cajun" in restaurants here and around the country. But the crawfish boil is symbolic as a family and community event, and we've been doing it for a long time.
How long have we been eating crawfish? It turns out, hundreds of years.
The Natives of South Louisiana
The Houma tribe had been eating crawfish long before the Cajuns arrived in the 1700s. They would fish for those mudbugs using reeds covered in deer meat. Crawfish were plentiful in the muddy southern marshes of the state, and the tribe even used them as their war emblem.
But, as it turns out, the Houma even named themselves after crawfish. They respected the fight in the crawfish, which raises their claw in defense, instead of backing down. It was a symbol of honor and resilience.
According to the Native American Project:
It turns out that the Houmas Indians were the primary group found there in the 1800s and early 1900s, but they weren’t there earlier. Sometimes given as Ouma (French) or Huma. The name translates literally as “red” and is apparently a shortened form of Saktci-homma, the name of the Chakchiuma meaning “red crawfish.”
But as much as they were revered, they were also a symbol of poverty when it came to using them as food, according to Kirby Verret, an elder of the Houma tribe, as he explained to the LSU Library in a history podcast.
And one of the signs of poverty in her era was to eat crawfish. If you were so downtrodden that you couldn’t find any food, you could take one of these tubs, a kind of a wash tub, and you could put it where they let the rice fields drain out. You could put a tub full sunk down by the drainage. Some of the crawfish would wash out of the rice field, and as they’d hit that tub they just settle to the bottom, and if you let it sit there it would just eventually fill up with crawfish and all you do is get the water out of it and you have a tub full of crawfish. But that was at one time a symbol of poverty, when you ate crawfish. I found that unique, knowing that there was such a . . . somewhat of a dishonor to eat crawfish. Of course, later on as I grew up to find out that the crawfish was . . . very much a tribal symbol, you know, that was our symbol. But to eat it just for the sake of survival, that was . . . There was more to it than I understood.
The Cajuns Arrive
When the Acadians arrived in south Louisiana after being forced out of Canada by the British, they settled along those same bayous and marshes where crawfish were plentiful. Having nothing with them but what they could take along their journey, they learned that the crawfish were plentiful. It was one of the cheapest food sources in the region.
Eventually, however, they began modifying recipes to cook crawfish more efficiently - including taking old lobster recipes from the north and modifying them.
“In the 1800s, Cajun settlers modified lobster recipes passed down from their coastal Canadian forefathers, substituting them with crawfish,” according to the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “Creole restaurateurs in New Orleans caught on, and once it took off in the Big Easy, the secret was out: Crawfish became synonymous with Louisiana cooking. Today, Louisiana leads the nation in crawfish production.”
Because crawfish are seasonal creatures, and because south Louisiana is such a communal region - where friends, family, and neighbors gathered together regularly to share meals, gossip, and good times - the crawfish boil was eventually tradition in the state as of the 20th century.
The Official Celebration of Spring
Since these large gatherings became almost the official celebration of the end of winter in Louisiana, we have used crawfish as the symbol of a good party and as the ultimate finger food. The gathering of whole communities for massive festivals has become a tradition in several Louisiana towns.
You have the Louisiana Crawfish Festival in March in Chalmette, Crawfest at Tulane and the Downtown Lake Charles Crawfish Festival in April, and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival in May - and that's just a few of them.
Crawfish have become a big part of life in south Louisiana, and even as the price fluctuates up and down, we still gather regularly to sample the marshland delicacy.