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Houston Chronicle, Texas Magazine T.N.'s shining moment may have been cut short, but he had the best funeral a crawfish could ask for. That was 20 years ago, but folks are still talking about it. ••• CRAWFISH TALES The lowly mudbug is a ubiquitous and versatile traveler through the geography, (and gastronomy) of the world By Carol Rust H E LIVED TO RACE, and this was his finest moment. In the heat of the contest, he forgot everything else. Spectators, caught up in the excitement of the race's final seconds, screamed encouragement to him and gestured wildly with their hands. Some jumped up and down; others slapped the racetrack rail as they crowded up against it. As the finish line loomed before him, T.N. didn't hesitate, nor did he look to either side to make sure he was still ahead. Ignoring his physical fatigue in the third straight day of racing, the unquestioned favorite pushed his sleek body forward with an ultimate surge of energy to cross the line in the finals and wrap up the championship. But it was a brief glory. Amid the whoops and shouts of victory, the tumultuous crowd failed to notice one thing. After crossing the finish line one last time, T.N. dropped dead. "He gave his all to the sport of crawfish racing," owner Jim Braud said at the graveside the next day during the funeral. Even though T.N. was just a crawfish, Braud and other members of the Cajun contingent at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio decided the thoroughbred racer should have a Christian burial, complete with Catholic priest and nuns leading the funeral procession around the University of Texas campus there. It was one of the biggest funerals San Antonio had ever seen, with about 3,000 people attending. It was a colorful crowd -- all participants or spectators at the festival -- from Lebanese belly dancers and German sausage makers to the current possum queen from Gilmer and a delegation representing Alsace-Lorraine. Newspaper photographers snapped pictures as one person after another eulogized the long-legged crawfish with the short-lived reign as grand champion. Before T.N. was laid to rest at the foot of a pin oak tree, Luckenbach promoter John Russell "Hondo" Crouch took a flask from his boot and poured a little vodka onto the ground where the crustacean was to be buried. "To keep him company," Crouch explained solemnly. As a Cajun band played the mournful strains of "The Waltz That Carried Me to My Grave," pallbearers put the small wooden box into the soil. T.N.'s shining moment may have been cut short, but he had the best funeral a crawfish could ask for. That was 20 years ago, but folks are still talking about it, says festival director JoAnn Andera. ••••• W HATEVER ELSE THEY might be known for -- fun, entertainment, mythology -- crawfish are still thought of primarily as food. And this time of year, Houstonians can take their pick from a parade of palate-tempters, from elegant crawfish enchiladas at Brennan's Houston or plump crawfish ravioli swimming in a rich sauce at Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen, to roll-your-sleeves-to-the-elbow, all-you-can-eat crawfish specials in the most casual of atmospheres at Joe's Crab Shack. For years, the word "crawfish" seemed to be synonymous with Louisiana, where 90 percent of all the crawfish harvested in the United States comes from -- and where 70 percent of that 90 percent is consumed. But Texas is also crawfish country. In fact, the first crawfish ever collected for scientific research were gathered by Capt. John H. Clark of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Commission in 1850 between San Antonio and El Paso. Two years later, a scientist documented information about Clark's crawfish and made the crustacean the captain's namesake, "procambarus clarkii." But the mudbug isn't confined only to areas bathed by Gulf Coast waters. Its presence and popularity reach throughout the world. In the United States, the first crawfish festival was held, not in Breaux Bridge, La. -- which is famous for its crawfish lovers -- but in Tualatin, Oregon, in 1951, to raise money for a VFW hall. Long before that, Indians and pioneers alike in the Northwest were catching and eating them, and the creature is found in just about every state that has water to support it. Globally, crawfish once thrived in about 500 different species on every continent except Antarctica, the arctic and Africa. Their existence dates to the Triassic period 230 million years ago. Today, the crawfish population is thriving in the United States, unlike Europe and Scandinavia, which have lost entire populations to disease or pollution. The United States exports millions of pounds annually to those lands and elsewhere to satisfy European cravings for the crustacean. Many diners there prefer crawfish meat over lobster. An order of crawfish, or "ecrevisse," in Europe costs $20 to $30 and is served complete with special crawfish fork and crawfish claw cracker. Crawfish are sold -- not by the pound, but by the creature -- for about $4 each in France to $7 apiece in Finland, depending on the season. Consequently, when a waiter in Europe brings out an order, someone from the Gulf Coast region might think it's a joke. There, on the plate, are four crawfish -- sometimes three, if they're really big ones. A full order. "C'est tout." And Europeans are equally surprised when served crawfish here. Robert Romaire, a professor at Louisiana State University's Agricultural Experiment Station in Baton Rouge, recalls inviting a group of Europeans to a traditional Cajun crawfish boil during an international gathering of astacologists (crawfish researchers) at LSU four years ago. About 300 pounds of the main course bubbled merrily in a 50-gallon cauldron over a propane flame before the host turned off the fire, and people started filling their plates. "It was like opening up a bank vault and telling them to take what they wanted," Romaire said. "They just dived into them." ••••• "A T THE VERY BEGINNING of the world, there was only water and sky -- and a log raft floating on the great ocean where several small animals and birds lived." "The birds flew out every day, hoping to spot dry land, but always returned disappointed. The Horned Owl finally said, "Land is somewhere beneath the water. We must make it appear or we will starve. Who will look for land?" "Beaver volunteered first. He swam as deeply as he could but tired before he reached the bottom and had to return to the raft. Frog went next but was chased back by Garfish, who wanted to eat him." "Finally, Crawfish volunteered and jumped into the water. His crusty exterior wasn't appealing to Garfish, and he was a better swimmer than Beaver." "When he reached the bottom of the great ocean, Crawfish used his tail as a scoop to heap up mud to build a chimney. He built it higher and higher until the top poked through the water and spread out to form land. When the land hardened, the animals and birds left the raft and built homes for themselves on the newly formed Earth." It's not surprising that a crawfish should have the starring role in the Alabama-Coushatta Indians' story of creation. American Indians across North America have drunk the broth of crawfish for centuries, believing it to have healing properties, and eaten the meat because it was so readily available. Author Glen Pitre of Cut Off, La., researched the links between American Indians and crawfish for "The Crawfish Book" (University of Mississippi Press, $12.95). Louisiana's Houma tribe uses the crawfish as its totem. Members of one branch of the Choctaws call themselves "Chakchiuma," or "the red crawfish"; another branch is "Shatje-ohla," or "crawfish people." A group of Paiute is called "Go'ya'tikadu," or "crawfish eaters"; one Osage faction is "Mon'shkon," or "crawfish." The lowly crawfish is in art and literature in Europe dating back to medieval times, when the crustacean's image signified allegiance and identity, Pitre writes. They're called yabbies in Australia, crawdads, crawdaddies and crayfish in other parts of the world. Even Aristotle recorded his observations about the creatures, which also appear in works by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others, Pitre says. There are about 350 species in North America, and each no doubt has enticed its share of children armed with a safety pin, a piece of bacon and a string, to spend hours on the banks of brooks, creeks, ponds and bayous, convinced they'll catch their supper. Only two of those species, however, are eaten in any great numbers in North America -- by humans, at least. The Red Swamp variety is featured in "etouffee" and in Hank Williams' hit song "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)" and is boiled up with corn, onion, potatoes and loads of cayenne pepper in back yards across the South. The White River variety, with a creamy white and light lavender exterior, appears in bodies of water in the North and Midwest. Oregonians enjoy the White River crawfish boiled, pickled and served cold. Its green-colored fat makes it less appetizing for cooking in dishes in which the Red Swamp variety's yellow fat lends color and taste to the flavor. Swedes enjoy the Red Swamp variety cooked much as the Oregonians do, with a lot of salt and dill, during their two-week festival in August, "Kraft-Premiar," in which the main pastime is eating crawfish and washing them down with schnapps. ••••• I N AMERICAN SLANG and in the centuries-old African-Cuban religion of Santeria, or "way of the saints," the image of the crawfish has a negative connotation. "To crawfish" means to go back on one's word, no doubt due to the crawfish's backward motion when fleeing in the water. In Santeria, it signifies going backward instead of progressing spiritually. Spiritual leaders use a variety of mediums to discern answers to a member's problems -- among them, tarot cards. One of these depicts a crawfish emerging from water under a full moon; whenever this card appears, people seeking answers should look to the card dealt just previously for their future, says Mercedes Rosquete, a leader in Houston's Santeria community. "In fact, we're not even supposed to eat crawfish," she says. "But a lot of people eat them anyway -- they're so good, they're hard to pass up." Crawfish have thrived in Texas no doubt for centuries, says Texas A&M University's Jim Davis, a professor in aquaculture, but it was the influx of Louisiana natives to the Lone Star State in the past century that has made eating them a Texas tradition. Louisianans have been drawn to Texas at least since Spindletop gushed in 1901, darkening Beaumont's skyline with oil and lining oilmen's pockets. When the Mississippi flooded in 1927, displacing hundreds of families, washing out crops and drowning livestock, another huge wave of Cajuns hit Texas. They brought their appetites with them. There's been a steady stream ever since. In the last decade, Americans have become infatuated with all things Cajun, and the demand for crawfish -- the bigger, the better -- has grown commensurately. More than one Texas town has jumped on the Cajun bandwagon. Today, Cajun crawfish festival sightings have been recorded as far north as Palestine, in the heart of the Hill Country in Llano (where a crawfish boil and open golf tournament are held), in Magnolia, Bridge City, Spring, Conroe (which, despite its name of Cajun Catfish Festival, crawfish get a high billing) and Mauriceville, where the first crawfish farm in Texas was started more than 25 years ago. By Carol Rust, Houston Chronicle, Texas Magazine Continued from Page 1 O N A ROAD MAP, a south-central section of Louisiana is light blue, indicating more water than land. It's a fair call; the thin strips of aging highway stretch like long islands, parting mile after mile of marsh. The wetlands are punctuated frequently with the stark white of giant egrets, wading in the green-colored water or gracefully flapping their wings to carry themselves slowly upward, almost as if in suspended animation. Bright yellow wildflowers -- in the dead of winter -- and huge fans of palmetto are everywhere. Winter has stripped the sweet gums of leaves, but the bulbous cypress roots show year- round in this spooky-looking swamp that is crawfish country. On the sides of the road are scattered shards of sugar cane that fell from trucks during last season's harvest. In some places, the wind has combed them into unruly rows. On the infrequently traveled road to Bayou Pigeon, a tiny fishing community an hour south of Baton Rouge, an above-ground cemetery looks as if it contains tidy rows of refrigerators lying on their sides. The town is home to a pontoon bridge, a Catholic church, a shrine commemorating the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a priest, two bars and something the locals call the End of the World. It's a point at which the last solid land dissolves into marsh and from marsh into seemingly endless water. And nearly everybody in Bayou Pigeon makes a living from the marsh and the water. Parked in nearly every driveway is not a car but a boat -- sometimes two or more. And in one driveway, dozens of pickups, each with a pair of rubber boots crammed upside down in the crevice between the cab and the bed, go in and out during the day, bringing their catch to Phillips Seafood to sell. In a tiny office, the heat is turned up high -- it hits those coming in like a blast from a furnace. Rick Phillips, owner and operator of Phillips Seafood, is clad in a camouflage thermal jumpsuit as he sits at a small desk. It's been a good year for crawfish, he says, but that always translates into lower prices for crawfishermen. Up until a few weeks ago, rock-bottom prices were about to starve the fishermen to death. They've had a year-long season, the first since the 39-year-old Phillips can remember in his life. South Louisiana didn't experience a hard freeze last year, so the water hyacinths that grow in abundance in the swamps never died out, continuing to provide plankton for crawfish to eat. Additionally, heavy snows to the north melted off, providing a steady flow of water through the Atchafalaya Basin. And when Hurricane Andrew blustered through last August, it stirred up nutrients in the water that crawfish thrive on and killed off many of their natural enemies, such as the large-mouth bass. In late December and early January, crawfish were selling boiled and ready to eat for $1.40 a pound, the same price they fetched when sold live the year before. Harvests are finally starting to slack off, which brought the prices up to $1.60 a pound -- a little better for the fishermen. "Prices can go way up in a day, and they can go way down," says Phillips, who deals almost exclusively in crawfish, selling them to restaurants, fish markets and other wholesale dealers. Some fishermen perceive threats to their livelihood other than overabundance and low prices. The Crawfish Conservation Association, mostly landowners in the Atchafalaya river bottom, initiated a program in 1990 to regulate crawfishing on its combined 90,000 acres of basin property. Members agreed to charge a $200 annual fishing fee, limit the season to a seven-month period, and require fishermen to use a 3/4-inch mesh in their nets that would allow smaller crawfish to escape and grow to full size. The program met with howls of protest from fiercely independent fishermen who had been fishing unchecked all their lives. Historically, people could fish on any property -- without a license -- where flooding has made it navigable by boat. Phillips says the association's proposed changes are as divisive and as highly charged emotionally among fishermen as the issue of abortion is to the American public. Association president Rudy Sparks of Patterson, La., near Morgan City, says the group's measures are an attempt to manage the resource, which has experienced a decline in the past decade "because the land in the basin has been fished into the ground." The industry has grown more sophisticated, and consumers are demanding a higher quality crawfish, Sparks said; year-round fishing doesn't allow the females time to burrow into the ground and produce the next year's population. Mike Osborne, a New Orleans attorney representing a group of fishermen called Common Claws, says the association is trying to control the market to its members' advantage and calls its efforts unfair. "If you own some land, you can't tell Delta Air Lines not to fly over it," he says. "It's like trying to charge someone for fishing in the Mississippi River or Galveston Bay." LSU's Romaire says crawfishermen can probably make the $200 in fees back on the first good day of fishing, but the larger issue is control. "They say, "If they charge us $200 this year, what's to stop them from charging us $2,000 a year from now?' " But right now, the permit program is suspended, in the face of pending litigation. Whatever the outcome, however, it's doubtful that the court's word will be the last. ••••• A GAINST A BRILLIANT pink and orange sunset, a scrappy, whitewashed building stands on the edge of the water. A refrigerated truck parked out front has a single word printed on the back: "FISH." There are a few homes nearby; down the narrow country road are a handful of house trailers, with laundry hung out to dry in the yard of one. In the shadows of dusk, a pearl-colored stretch limousine with gold trim pulls into the shell driveway in front of the whitewashed building and is parked next to a gold-colored Mercedes. A chauffeur gets out and opens the doors. Inside the building, there is a strangely festive atmosphere as men in expensive suits mill about, introducing themselves and helping themselves to another cold beer from a huge ice chest on the bare concrete floor. The men are investors, and they've come to this remote point in Chambers County, east of Houston, to see a seafood-processing demonstration, which has taken on a surrealistic appearance. White smoke slithers from a machine containing liquid nitrogen and hangs in the air like fog upon Scottish moors. Houston businessman Alan Harp wants to show the investors how his patented process for freezing shellfish -- in the shell -- works. Some of the investors are Mexican, and are seeking ways to market their country's abundant populations of crab since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Such a process could revolutionize the Mexican seafood industry, which has been hampered by lack of decent roads and transportation to get fresh seafood to market. Harp is freezing blue crabs tonight for these investors, but he's really excited about the implications it has for crawfish. Currently, frozen crawfish are not a viable business product. When frozen with traditional methods, the crawfish's yellow fat quickly turns rancid, giving the meat an unpleasant fishy taste. This new method will allow crawfish to be frozen and kept in cold storage for years, Harp says. Harp's company, Seafresh International, has just signed a letter of intent with the People's Republic of China to set up a crawfish processing plant in a southeastern province there. Chinese waters are teeming with the crustacean, which the Chinese thought were poisonous up until five years ago. And through a business deal gone sour in 1987, Harp knows where to go with the frozen product. Seven years ago, Harp contracted with Lloyd's of London International Trading Co. of New York to freeze half a million pounds of large Louisiana crawfish and send them to Sweden for "Kraft-Premiar," during which almost 7 million pounds are consumed. Crawfish once lived in Sweden's mountain ponds and streams and were revered in culinary circles. A fungus decimated their numbers, but not the Swedes' penchant for them. For about 25 years, Turkey exported crawfish for the festival until the same fungus spread to Turkish waters. Harp's deal fell through at the last minute, but he kept his Scandinavian connections and now plans to ship frozen Chinese crawfish there. His freezing process involves cooking the crawfish in the shell, then dipping them in a patented, sucrose coating of sorts that acts as a protective coating and keeps ice crystals from forming when the crustaceans go through the next step -- dropping them to minus 300 degrees with liquid nitrogen. "We don't know why it works, just that it does," Harp says. He has been freezing and selling blue crabs with the process since 1984. The frozen crawfish then travel on a conveyor belt under a fine mist of water, which forms a seal over them and prevents them from moving around during shipping. From there, they can be stored in any standard freezer. At the Chambers County plant, Harp disappears into a stock room and brings out a box. "OK, who wants to play?" he asks the investors. He gives each of them a plastic apron, rubber gloves and a rubber cap to keep their hair from falling into the food as they pack it. One by one, the well-dressed, distinguished-looking investors are transformed into Three Stooges look-alikes, wearing pastel shower caps and plastic aprons. They pack the cooked crabs into cardboard trays before Harp places the trays on the conveyor belt that takes them into the liquid nitrogen. As they watch the crabs come out the other end frozen solid, one investor says to another, "The potential for this freezing process is staggering." The other nods, then adds sagely, "It could revolutionize the entire industry." They are so absorbed with what they are seeing, they have forgotten one thing: They still have on their shower caps -- one pink, the other yellow-and-blue polka-dot. ••••• F ROZEN FOODS AND international business aside, crawfish perform another important function -- entertainment. In his hometown of Port Neches, Jim Braud, owner of the late T.N., still raises racing crawfish. And it's serious business. "Now, a good racer is going to have along legs and little claws so it can run faster," says the proprietor of Braud's Racing Stables. Braud exercises his eight-legged fleet daily, placing mudbug munchies at the end of the "track" and playing a recording of a local high school football game with crowds cheering. "When they get in a regular race with everybody yelling, they'll know to run because there's something for them to eat at the finish," Braud says. He feeds his racers high-protein catfish food; longtime racing rival A.J. Judice from nearby Bridge City feeds his crawfish "boudin" from his Port Arthur grocery. That diet, no doubt, was the inspiration for the cheer Judice wrote years ago, which he leads before crawfish races: "Hot "boudin" and cold couscous! Come on, crawfish, push, push, push!" Braud and Judice have been racing crawfish since the late 1950s; each has a champion crawfish from which he's bred today's racers. All of Braud's top racers come from his prize-winner Anatole; Judice's come from Tante La La, who won the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival races in 1959. They generally feed and train from six to a dozen racers at a time, Braud says. Female crawfish have a three-year lifespan; the males usually die after two years. A top racer can sell for $600 or more; stud service (no kidding) to a top bloodline costs up to $300. When the two travel to out-of-town races, they transport their racers in small ice chests filled with damp Spanish moss. If they don't trust the city's water supply, they bring water from Black Bayou near Port Neches with them. They both rent hotel rooms, but one of them gives his bath up to the crawfish and showers in the other's room. They are careful to keep the water at 74 degrees, which they've determined keep the crawfish in best racing form. Braud and Judice are also duly appointed Texas crawfish racing commissioners, named in the early '60s by Gov. Preston Smith to "ensure that no unscrupulous characters get into the crawfish racing industry in the great state of Texas," Braud explains with a dignified air. He's raced crawfish all over Texas and Louisiana, but Braud admits he was surprised when he got a call from the folks at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nev., in 1983. "They'd heard of crawfish races, and they wanted to have one. "But they thought they could race just any crawfish, and they didn't know the rules because there wasn't a crawfish racing commissioner present," he said. Braud brought one of his racers with him and officiated at Las Vegas' first official crawfish race, which drew a throng of delighted spectators and an invitation to return, which he did. But being a crawfish racing commissioner isn't all globe-trotting and fancy hotel rooms -- the season for crawfish festivals is coming up, and he has his work cut out for him in the next several months. Moreover, he'll never get a break from his duties. "When we were appointed commissioner, they didn't make any provisions for replacing us, so we're commissioners for life," Braud says. But he can say the same for his crawfish -- as long as they're racing well, he keeps entering them. There's no pasture he turns them out to in old age. The same goes for the ones who might have shown some promise but just don't measure up on the racetrack. Braud doesn't get broken-hearted about it. "I can always eat the losers," he says.
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