Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crawfish season

Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax explores Houston's love affair with the succulent crustacean; notably, the fact that the love affair is relatively recent:
It wasn’t always this way in Houston. As recently as the 1980s, crawfish were still seen as impossibly exotic. “You want me to suck the what?” was often heard.  
Jim Gossen remembers those days, and as chairman of Louisiana Sysco Seafood, he’s been an integral part in bringing about the cultural shift. Despite selling the company to Sysco a few years ago, the Lafayette native still runs the company he founded in 1972. Gossen moved to Houston in 1975, because, as he says, that was “where the market was.” Houston didn’t know it then, but Gossen, through his involvement in pioneering Cajun-style restaurants such as Don’s, Willie G’s, and the Magnolia Bar & Grill and events like the Spring Crawfish Festival, has changed the way Houstonians (and by extension, all Texans) eat forever. 
Gossen now believes that more crawfish are consumed in Greater Houston than in the entire state of Louisiana, and for that, he is the one man most responsible. Yes, he had his contemporaries out there in the 1970s spreading the Mudbug Gospel: Ray Hay’s (today’s Ragin’ Cajun) and the tragically closed NASA-area Cajun stronghold Pe-Te’s among them, both of which catered to homesick Cajuns in Houston for oil patch jobs.  
The first wave of zydeco’s popularity also brought crawfish into Houston’s culinary scene. Ken Watkins recalls eating crawfish at African-American Catholic parish hall gigs by zydeco titan Clifton Chenier in the 1970s, where “everybody was having a party.” (As many a zydeco performer has said from the bandstand over the years, Louisiana is the place where “even the crawfish have soul.”) 
Even given all that, when Gossen helped open Don’s, he could hardly give the critters away. 
“When I opened up Don’s in 1976 I couldn’t sell three sacks a week,” he says from his car, en route to another dining adventure in the bayous of Louisiana, where he still owns two homes. “What I would do is boil them, and whatever I had left over on Sunday, I would put on a plate as a garnish, just so people could see what they looked like.” 
Crustacean parsley? Huh. 
Needless to say, Houston's come a long way from those days, thanks at least partly to Gossen's efforts. The popularity of crawfish grew throughout the 80s and 90s; more recently, the post-Katrina influx of Louisianans to Houston has swelled the ranks of the city's mudbug aficionados. The inception of commercial farming of crawfish by rice growers in Louisiana and eastern Texas, who realized they could raise them in their flooded fields, also helped by improving the crustacean's quality and availability. 

As the popularity of boiled crawfish grew, distinctive cooking styles developed:
Houston crawfish are prepared in variations on three main styles: purist Cajun (spices in the boil), Texan (spices on the shells), and Vietnamese. Some of Gossen’s earliest customers at the Magnolia were large parties of Vietnamese immigrants.  Since then, Vietnamese Houstonians have made Houston into a year-round crawfish city, thanks to their importation of Asian crustaceans that never go out of season. They also have their own way of preparing them: adding ginger and lemongrass to the traditional seasonings, fruits and spices of mustard seed, lemon, garlic, onion, and bay leaves. Viet-Houston crawfish also come with spicy butter-garlic sauces. With its roots in both regional bayous and distant (though equally sultry) Vietnam, some Bayou City foodies have declared this dish Houston’s signature fare. 
You also have Vietnamese American cooks who make them Cajun-style. One such is Khon Lu, owner of Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art in Midtown Houston, Lu hosts crawfish boils at his establishment when the mood strikes him. “I make mine Cajun style, with fresh and dry ingredients,” Lu said. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to crawfish. The only thing that should be on your fingers are the cayenne peppers and spices. The boil should be clean and devoid of oils and butter. The Vietnam style is basically stir fried in butter after they’re dunked.”
I usually go to Khon's at least a couple of times every season for his crawfish; they are so good that even my New Orleanian girlfriend looks forward to his boils. Here's what a plate of his crawfish looked like last Sunday:

To be sure, not everybody in Houston is a fan of crawfish. A fairly common remark is that peeling and eating them "takes too much work" relative to the amount of meat you get from them. They can get messy, and some people can't handle the spiciness with which they are traditionally cooked. 

True, there is work involved in getting to the meat in the tail (and, if they are large enough, the claws); crawfish is an activity as much as it is a food. But - aside from the fact that if the meat is good, then the work is worth it! - that very activity is why a typical crawfish boil is just as much of a social event as it is dinner. People gather over large communal plates or newspaper spreads of freshly-boiled crawfish to talk and laugh as they peel tails, crack claws, sip beer and consume entire rolls of paper towels in a futile effort to keep their hands clean. This social feature might be just as responsible for crawfish's popularity as the tender and flavorful meat itself.

Houstonia dedicated much of March's issue to crawfish, including their list of the best places to get traditional Cajun and Vietnamese crawfish in Houston, the best local beers to pair with crawfish, and some suggestions for your next boil.

Crawfish season traditionally lasts into the summer, but March and April are generally the best months for quality. So get 'em while there's still time. Bon app├ętit!

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