A lot of people believe that there was a stigma attached to eating crawfish because it was “poverty food.” Louisiana Life food columnist Stanley Dry was the latest to repeat this notion in The Versatile Crawfish, (Louisiana Life, March/April 2015).
I wish he had read my book, Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, before penning his column. He would have found that the facts don’t measure up.
A case can be be made that crawfish was proudly served in clubs, restaurants, on society tables and stately banquets without shame or stigma. Also, I believe that crawfish played a more significant role in the Cajun diet earlier in the 20th century than was previously thought by Carl Brasseaux, Ryan Brasseaux and Marcelle Bienvenu in their book, Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine.
In Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, several references are made regarding widespread consumption of crawfish in the Times-Picayune, the Baton Rouge newspapers and others as early as 1900 and many before 1940.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the stigma of eating crawfish because it was a poverty food is anecdotal. There is simply too much mention in the early 20th century newspapers of crawfish being served as an item to impress guests for me to believe that people looked down on the poor Cajun for eating crawfish. (Full disclaimer: I believe the reason why I am able to dispel this notion is due to technology. During my research I had the luxury of having all the state newspapers available to me digitally through my library. Modern science: ain’t it grand?)
In the St. Martinville Weekly Messenger of March 31, 1900:
In the “Local News” column: “The rainfall the past week has been so abundant, that it swelled all the steams to the limit of their banks, and a large acreage of the low lands, near the woods and at Cypress Island are under wate., This mean a chance for the swampers and a large crawfish crop.”
There was also this mention of a concert and crawfish: “After the concert on the church green tomorrow evening, the Greig Cornet band will have a fine Crawfish Gumbo at Fournet’s hall. The gumbo will be ready at 7 o’clock; families who do not want to come to the hall can send for their gumbo, they will be served as if at the hall.”
Lafayette Advertiser of May 4, 1904:
“Mr. and Mrs. S. J. Breaux entertained at a social dinner last Sunday …Dinner was served a la Francaise as follows: red and white wines, red fish, quail, teal duck, crawfish salad with aspic…”
Lafayette Advertiser, January 24, 1906:
The Advertiser, taking note of an item that appeared in the LSU Reveille of the organization of Cercle Creole at LSU reported that “Messrs. Mouton, Melancon and Pavy are masters in the art of “crapaud” speaking, and with such mean at their head, the “crawfish-eating element” in the University will gain prominence.”
St. Martinville Weekly Messenger, April 14, 1906:
The newspaper advised that the selling of “Crawfish and other seafood may only be sold within town limits at the public market house.”
St. Landry Clarion, June 8, 1907:
In an article titled “As Seen by a Kentuckian,” the author noted that “crawfish were selling at a nickel a pound in Opelousas.”
Morning Advocate, April 6, 1915:
Mentioning a dinner sponsored by the Elk’s Club, “Following the completion of their kitchen, now receiving its finishing touches, the Eatmore Club will resume their periodical Bohemian luncheons, varying the events as the seasons change. Crawfish bisque will be the principal attraction at the first of these, to be held within a fortnight; then as shrimp and fish come in season they will be featured. When it comes to real enjoyment, without frills or furbelows, the Elks stand in a class by themselves.”
State-Times, May 12, 1928:
Athletic officials from a track meet at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) which included teams from Centenary, Louisiana College, Louisiana Normal, La. Tech, Mississipi College, Ogelthorpe and Presbyterian, “coaches and officials of the meet were guests at a crayfish supper last night at the Hebert Hotel in Breaux Bridge.”
The Beaumont Enterprise, April 19, 1931:
The Enterprise reported on the unveiling of a statue of Evangeline donated by Hollywood actress Dolores Del Rio at possibly the biggest society event in St. Martin Parish history. Reporter L.L. Bienvenu reported that Dudley J. LeBlanc, president of the Association of Louisiana Acadians, helped organize a tour of the parish to unveil the statue of Evangeline. “Five tour buses of dignitaries toured the Teche Valley and stopped in Breaux Bridge, the “Gabriel City” where there was a French program in the City Park, followed by a parade. A crawfish bisque supper, a famed Creole dish in south Louisiana, was served to nearly 500 persons, under the “paradise oaks” located on the west banks of the Teche. Governor Huey T. Long also spoke.”
There are other articles too numerous to list here.
When I began writing Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, my working title was “Crazy for Crawfish.” The following item “Brothers in Fight Over Crawfish Boil,” taken from the Times-Picayune of Feb. 7, 1907 helps to illustrate my point:
John Klimm wanted to give a crawfish boil for a number of friends but his brother, Daniel, strenuously objected.
As a result, John was sent to the Charity Hospital suffering from server lacerations of the head and face. Daniel was arrested. The brother, the police say, quarreled earlier in the day about the affair, and when Daniel returned home shortly before 10 ‘o’clock, John was there to meet him with an ax handle, which he used freely on his brother’s arms and back.
Daniel then pulled out a revolver and fired two shots. He said later the revolver was loaded with blank cartridges. It was then that the brothers got into a clinch, and John was beaten over the face and thrown to the ground, his head striking the sidewalk. Daniel surrendered to Corporal Burke of the Twelfth precinct station and was charged with assault and wounding.
John Klimm goes to Charity Hospital, Daniel to Jail.
The illustration for this entry is a Feb. 4, 1923 Times-Picayune article written by Clayton Poole of the Louisiana Department of Conservation detailing the Vast Commercial Possibilities of the Humble Louisiana Crawfish. In addition to the crawfish’s potential as a commercial enterprise, the article also mention how Prohibition may have lessened the enjoyment of a crawfish boil.
Regarding the shame attached to eating crawfish, I don’t think a stigma, (if there really was one) associated with eating crawfish came from French-speaking Louisiana. I agree with Dickie Breaux, the originator of Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge, whom I cite in Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean.
“I think a stigma associated with crawfish popped up just about the time the oil industry arrived in Louisiana,” said Dickie Breaux, owner of the popular Café des Amis (pronounced ka-fay daze ah-mee) in downtown Breaux Bridge. “The only place the oil field workers ever saw crawfish was in the sewage pond. They didn’t relate to the clean water crawfish that grew in the Atchafalaya Basin and rice fields.”
After the State Board of Education decreed in 1916 that the Cajuns’ native language could not be spoken at school and the state legislature declared English to be the official state language in 1921, it’s a wonder that the Cajun culture even survived in Louisiana. What if society had given as much deference to bilingualism back then as it does to Louisiana’s Spanish speakers today? Perhaps we’d all be tri-lingual.
I’ll give credit to the crawfish, a keystone species that has unified Cajuns and Creoles of all stripes. This little Jurassic Era crustacean is conquering the world one epicurean at a time.
I’ll leave you with the words of Cajun raconteur Revon Reed and his take on the power of the crawfish:
“The crawfish symbolizes many things for the Cajun: money in the bank, the food in his belly, bravery for the storyteller and power for the politician. It affects the whole Cajun culture.
It shouldn’t be the eagle on the American flag, but the crawfish. The reason is simple: put an eagle on a railroad track and what does the eagle do? It flies away. But put an Écrevisse on the same rail when a big locomotive is coming and what will it do? It will raise its claws and will not leave his post! Yes, my friends, that is the crawfish.” (from Lache pas la Patate).