Mom on the Run: Crawfish over time

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Recipes aren’t just instructions for how to prepare food. The titles, instructions and ingredient lists can serve as important windows into the lives of the cooks who created them.

For instance, World War II-era recipes often include rationing information and substitutions, as do earlier recipes from the Civil War, which shows the shortages cooks coped with.

Today’s recipes often list substitutions for high-fat or high-sugar items, reflecting an emphasis our society tends to place on eating more healthfully.

If you have a big enough recipe archive, you can even see how recipes evolved over time to reflect changes in our eating habits, geography and customs. Recently, I took a stroll through The Advocate’s online digital archive (visit http://www.theadvocate.com/archives to learn more about this service).

For someone with history and archives management degrees, access to these kinds of archives is like Christmas morning, and I have to be exceedingly careful not to spend entire days immersed in issues of The Daily Capitolian-Advocate from 1885.

Like the one from June 23, which describes several recipes, including a stewed carp garnished with crawfish: “This way of stewing carp is said to be very good: Draw and skin the fish; brown some butter with a little flour, add some small onions, parsley, thyme and mushrooms, and moisten with a large wine glass full of water and two of red wine. When the mixture is at boiling point, pour it into the pan in which you place the carp and stew it on a brisk fire. When cooked put the fish on a dish and garnish it with crawfish and croutons; add the sauce thickened with a good piece of butter.”

Note the lack of measurements; that is common for the time. Standardized measurements are a fairly recent development.

Following the crawfish through the years, we find numerous references to crawfishing parties, crawfish boils and, of course, a million references to crawfish bisque. It appears that crawfish were not only a delicious foodstuff, but served then as now as a point of celebration.

The State-Times in 1917 had this recipe for the “distinctive Creole luxury.”

“Take about eight dozen fine, large crawfish and wash thoroughly, being careful to cleanse of every particle of dust or sand, drop them in a large pan of cold water in which a handful of salt has been dissolved, to make them disgorge all mud. Drain from this water, and set to boil in about a gallon of water. When boiled, take the fish out of the water (save the water). Pick out two dozen of the large crawfish, pick out the inside of the tails and save the heads, cleaning them of every particle of meat.

“Set this meat to one side with the shells of the head. Pick the meat from the rest of the crawfish, saving all the shells. Take one large onion, a carrot, a bunch of celery, a spring (sic) of thyme, one bay leaf, three sprigs of parsley, six cloves and two blades of mace, one clove of garlic. Chop all very fine and put into the pot of water in which the crawfish were boiled. Add all the picked meat except the reserved tails, and all the shells of the bodies and heads except the reserved heads. Add one cup of rice and let it all boil till the mixture becomes thick and mushy. When it is well cooked, take it off the fire and mash the shells thoroughly, and the meat also, and strain all through a sieve.

“Take about a tablespoonful of butter and two quarts of oyster liquor and add this to the soup, seasoning to taste with cayenne, salt and black pepper. Set to boil slowly. In the meantime, take the reserved crawfish meat and make a stuffing as follows for the reserved heads: Chop an onion very fine and let it brown in a tablespoonful of butter. Squeeze thoroughly a cup of bread wet with water. When well squeezed, mix with a little milk, sufficient to make a paste, season to taste and mix with the well seasoned crawfish meat.

“Chop another onion and put in melted butter, and add the crawfish stuffing, letting all fry about ten minutes, adding in the meantime, a finely chopped spring (sic) each of thyme and parsley and a bay leaf, and mixing thoroughly. Take off the fire and stuff the reserved heads of crawfish. Put on every stuffed head a dot of butter, and set in the oven and bake ten minutes. Place the stuffed heads in the tureen and pour the soup over.”

The Housewives League had plenty of time and a penchant for butter.

Crawfish also blocked traffic (Morgan City, 1926, a predicament alleviated by gallons of bisque), soothed weary flood refugees in 1927 by floating in a gumbo and helped dull the Great Depression.

“Even the laziest man may delight in crawfishing on these long, sleepy spring afternoons, and each bayou and stream in southern Louisiana has its quota of fishermen,” the Morning Advocate reported April 9, 1932. “When ‘Ole Marse Crawfish’ leaves his native haunts and becomes the chief ingredient in an Louisiana-French dish, he is then aptly the object of gastronomic veneration.”

The story went on to include recipes for bisque, of course, but also a “crawfish fricasse” that’s quite similar to today’s etouffee.

“Make a roux with four tablespoons of flour and six tablespoons of fat and let bubble for a few minutes; then add two finely chopped onions, one clove of garlic, salt, pepper, a few drops of tabasco sauce to make it hot, and let simmer with crawfish tails.”

Serve with plain boiled rice or in a crawfish pie. A simple recipe suited to bare cabinets and lean times.

Servicemen in 1945 listed crawfish among the things they missed most about home, along with “a pound of rice, a box of strawberries, a ‘Poor Boy’ sandwich.” Leave it to Louisianians to list food as four of their five most missed things from home.

Incidentally, the fifth was a pound of Louisiana soil.

Beth Colvin is The Advocate’s assistant Food editor. She can be reached at bcolvin@theadvocate.com.