Published in the Rains County Leader on June 16, 2022:
Crawfish. The first thing I did before beginning this column was to Google the correct name for these strange looking creatures. According to those who are supposed to know, people north of the Mason-Dixon Line normally refer to these miniature lobsters as crayfish while residents of the West Coast, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas call them crawdads. But since I married a Louisiana boy where they are known as crawfish, that’s what I’ll go with.
Texas wasn’t mentioned in the blog post I used for reference, but in the era before organized play dates and yoga classes for kids, my friends and I sometimes went fishing for crawdads in the drainage ditch near my house. We’d sneak a piece of bacon out of the refrigerator, wrap it around a rock, tie a string to it, and troll the muddy waters. I don’t think we ever caught one – in fact, I don’t remember ever seeing one. I don’t have a clue what we would have done if we had caught one – but if it was good enough for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, it was good enough for us.
As an adult, I tend to avoid the unattractive critters. I love a good shrimp boil, but I don’t get excited when the local restaurants begin advertising that the crawfish are in. I did have some fried crawfish tails once which, as I recall, I enjoyed very much. But I don’t want those feelers and legs rising to the top of my bowl of gumbo or gracing my plate of jambalaya. Maybe it’s the eyes. I’ve had a couple of creepy experiences with the eyes of seafood.
The first time I remember fishing was when I was less than ten years old. We were visiting an aunt who had a pond on her property. I don’t remember much about the day except standing by that pond with a cane pole in my hand, staring intently at the red and white bobber that looked strangely like the Emory water tower. When that bobber suddenly went under, I jerked that pole as hard as I could and brought up my first fish. It was tiny – too small to actually take the hook – but somehow I had managed to hook the poor thing in the eye. I felt bad as my fishing coach carefully removed the hook and returned him to the pond where he would undoubtedly spend his life retelling how he lost his eye but escaped the frying pan.
Since then, I’ve never been able to eat anything that is looking at me. Many years later I ordered trout in a Colorado restaurant. Apparently there was an ordinance that, in order to prove that what was served was what was advertised on the menu, the fish had to arrive at the table with head, tail, and fins intact. I stared in horror at my dinner as it stared back at me. Up to that point I had never sent food back to the kitchen, but I made an exception that day. To the waitress’s credit, she didn’t laugh when I asked her to take it back and ask the cook to remove the inedible parts.
I’ve included this back story so you might understand why a very thoughtful gift from a friend was a bit traumatic for me. Saturday evening, just as the last James Bond movie was nearing its end on our TV, we heard a tap on the door followed by a familiar greeting – “Perkins here.” David paused the movie and opened the door to a neighbor bearing a gift.
“I just came from a crawfish boil,” he explained. “There was a lot left over, and I asked the host if I could bring some to my Louisiana neighbor.” With that he presented us with a zip lock bag of still-warm crawfish. The bag was clouded with condensation, so I was able to thank him appropriately without freaking out.
It was too late to even think about a taste test, so after the movie ended, I searched for uses for leftover crawfish. I didn’t find any suggestions for simply reheating, and since I had all the necessary ingredients, I decided I would make gumbo the next evening. While I was on the Internet, I researched the proper way to peel a crawfish. The line drawings weren’t too intimidating, so I felt prepared for the coming ordeal.
Sunday afternoon was a different story. I placed two containers on the counter, one for shells and another for the edible parts. Then I put the zip lock in the sink and opened it. I saw nothing but legs and feelers – and eyes! The first two went fairly well, but I was surprised at the small amount of meat that remained after shelling and cleaning. I was also surprised at the mess that was left in the head that some people consider a delicacy. Then I pulled the third crawfish out of the bag. It was bigger than my hand, and I swear I saw it move. I threw up my hands and stepped back from the sink.
“I can’t do this,” I exclaimed. “This is disgusting!”
David grunted from the couch where he was staring at his IPhone. Sensing no rescue coming from that direction, I took a deep breath and returned to my task. By the time I worked my way through the bag, I had become more adept at extracting the shrimp-like tails from the shells. I threw the leftovers into the vacant wooded lot next door for whatever critter might like to chew on them and proceeded with the gumbo preparations.
The gumbo was delicious as witnessed by Perkins when I took him a bowl. The old folk saying “What goes around comes around” is usually quoted with a negative meaning – a bit like when Mom used to quote a verse from the book of Numbers that said “be sure your sins will find you out.” But in some cases, it can have a positive meaning. For example, if you take your neighbor some crawfish, you might get a bowl of gumbo in return – and she might learn to deal with a new experience without going into shock.