The New York Times recently featured Hawk’s Restaurant (north of Rayne, La.) in an article entitled Where Crawfish are Boiled, Fried and Celebrated. Congratulations to Hawk’s on the national recognition. It’s well deserved.
Hawk’s was one of the “new” restaurants that began to feature boiled crawfish (and nothin’ but) in the 1980s when the crawfish craze began to spike in Louisiana. Hawk’s has been operating since 1983 and it’s true, they are located in the “middle of nowhere.”
Crawfish historian Sam Irwin was 29 years old in 1983 and very skeptical of a business plan that was predicated on selling boiled crawfish in a restaurant that was only open during crawfish season. Irwin was wrong to be skeptical. Today, there are any number of crawfish patios in Louisiana and there is plenty of “how-to” information on how to help Joe Bleaux start his own crawfish patio. Incidentally, Richard’s Crawfish Patio in Abbeville pre-dates Hawk’s by 30+ years. (Editor’s note: make sure you pronounce it Cajun-style – ree-shard).
NY Times writer Bryan Miller is largely correct when he postulates that crawfish was “pretty much a Cajun victual until the early 1980s.” He links the rise of crawfish and all things Cajun to Chef Paul Prudhomme the Blackened, but there is much more to the history than that. That history can be found in Irwin’s 2014 book, Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean.
First, crawfish farming technology had been adequately mastered by agricultural researchers and disseminated to farmers and landowners in Louisiana by the 1970s. It had been shown that Louisiana rice fields was a great habitat for Procambarus clarkii. Rice farmers, however were slow to embrace the crawfish crop. “We’re getting a good price for our rice,” they said. “Why should we convert our rice fields to crawfish ponds? After all, crawfish in rice fields are a nuisance.”
The melody changed when rice prices dropped through the bucket in the early 1980s. “Holy smokes! We got to do something to pay the bills.” Right about that time Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom got some money to help market Louisiana crawfish and cuisine and who better than Chef Paul the Blackened to promote crawfish. From Sam Irwin’s book, Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean:
The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) under Commissioner Bob Odom began an international and national marketing program to educate the world about Cajun food products, including crawfish. Numerous media events put together by LDAF featured Cajun cooking demonstrations by Chef Paul “K-Paul” Prudhomme in Oregon, London and New York City. Prudhomme “won” a number of “Crawfish Culinary Cook-offs” against Oregon chef Marcel Lahsene and West Coast media recorded it all. National news anchorman Dan Rather reported the story of the cook-off and the growing crawfish industry in the June 28, 1985 broadcast of the CBS Evening News.
The marketing and media attention paid off and national restaurant chains began having conversations with Louisiana crawfish stakeholders. Interest in crawfish by the national restaurant trade came as early as 1980 when the Bennigan’s Restaurant chain held a large crawfish boil for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the parking lot of its new Cortana Mall restaurant in Baton Rouge. The LSU Cooperative Extension Service arranged for a Crawfish Technology and Marketing Conference and invited more than 200 crawfish processors to attend the seminar. Representatives of Bennigan’s and Red Lobster told the group how to break into the national market.
Suffice to say, the Louisiana crawfish is taking over the world, one epicurean at a time.