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The Call of the Crawfish

By Ian McNulty

New Orleans, LA –

You can divine the coming spring in longer days, in warmer nights and even in blossom-spiked breezes perking up. But to me, another sure harbinger of the season is something akin to litter.

My first sighting of the 2010 season came earlier this month. It was a single, red, peeled crawfish shell lying in the street. There was another about ten feet down the way, then a third, then a fourth. The trail continued along my route at regular intervals, dropped in a steady string as if to create a breadcrumb trail. Shortly I caught up with the designer of this pattern -- a guy in the passenger seat of a work truck, eating a boiled lunch while cruising around town, chucking the peeled shells out the window.

I'm not about to celebrate litter, but I confess the moment was an evocative one. When little piles of discarded crawfish shells begin appearing in parking lots, around park benches and under picnic tables, you know the season for one of south Louisiana's most distinctive foods is upon us in all its torrential abundance.

Louisiana is rightfully proud of its oysters and shrimp, of its smoked meats and culinary traditions both fine and rustic. But other regions can also boast of strong heritage in these areas. When it comes to crawfish, however, there is simply no argument that Louisiana is supreme. In any given year, the crawfish farms of the Cajun prairie and the wild harvest areas of the great Atchafalaya Basin west of New Orleans produce roughly 90 percent of the American crawfish harvest. Asian imports account for some of the frozen product, but when it comes to live crawfish, the stuff used for crawfish boils, Louisiana is the promised land, spring is the holy season and each crawfish boil can be a secular mass in honor of this vast bounty.

Of all the many preparations of crawfish, the boil brings out its best qualities, which are not limited to flavor or nutrition. Served in massive quantities, dumped upon a table where friends and strangers stand elbow to elbow and, by necessity, consumed no faster than they can be peeled, crawfish are the ultimate social food. From a sawhorse and plywood table in a St. Roch backyard to a tented Chamber of Commerce function in a Metairie parking lot, the crawfish boil is a communal experience.

Add seasonal vagaries of rainfall and temperature to the dynamics of supply and demand, and it's easy to see why crawfish prices seem to fluctuate as much as oil commodities. And, like prices at the pump, their ever-changing rate per pound is documented around town in the hand-drawn signs staked outside popular markets.

In these homespun advertisements we can see another abundant yield of the Louisiana seasons - only this time it's the election season. It seems that a few crawfish purveyors have begun repurposing some of those political yard signs that descend on our streetscapes each election as if by biblical plague. Such resourceful sellers simply mark the day's prices on butcher paper and slap these sheets over the names of hopefuls, has-beens and rising powers alike.

If one inevitable sign of crawfish season is the litter of shells, it's refreshing that these days another sign is a form of recycling.

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