Food for the Soul

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Grab the paper towels and a brew — it’s tail-twistin’ time

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

’Tis the season — crawfish season. Don’t be squeamish. Pull up to a plateful. Oh, and you may not want to wear the good clothes.

Crawfish, mudbugs, crawdads, crayfish — call them what you will, but the Cajun craze is on the move again, invading a tabletop near you. From late winter through spring, the fat crustaceans seem all the rage. Diehard fans wait for months to twist apart the heads and tails to get at the tender meat inside.

These little critters mean big business for people like Curt Crissey. The Starkville businessman owns Crawfish Company, a subsidiary of Brewski’s, plus two Cajun and Creole-style Rosey Baby restaurants, one in Starkville and another in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Crissey supplies restaurants and others with crawfish and maintains several mobile kitchens for catering. At the season’s peak, he’ll be moving 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of the freshwater shellfish around the country every week.

The Mississippi State University alumnus didn’t set out to build an empire.

“It was actually an accident,” Crissey says. He was just trying to help a guy out when he let a crawfish seller set up a roadside kiosk in front of Brewski’s 30-plus years ago. The seller fell on hard times and, in the end, abandoned his equipment. After staring at it stored in his back room for a year, Crissey figured he might as well try to do something with it. What came after, he never saw coming.

“When it happened, it was kind of a gold rush,” he says. “It was unbelievable how people responded to it.”

Crawfish are shipped live, bagged in mesh sacks and ready for the boil pot where they cook up in oft-secret blends of Cajun spices.

In Crissey’s restaurants, the shellfish are seasoned in three stages — first in the boil, then in a second pot to finish cooking, and a third time in the steam phase. And no, he isn’t going to share particulars beyond that.

Louisiana is the granddaddy of all crawfish production, accounting for up to 95 percent of the total U.S. supply from year to year, according to the USDA. And Louisianians consume a huge portion of the harvest. But Crissey and others like him love to spread the gospel. He’s played a big role in expanding the market, especially in Mississippi from north of Jackson to Memphis.

Overseeing a widespread network of crawfish farmers and customers is hectic business, especially this time of year. Crissey has to find reasons to laugh, like a call he once received from the Atlanta airport.

“Here’s this big, international airport, and I had a big shipment going out,” he begins. “And I get a call from the cargo crew telling me, ‘We knocked over all your boxes of crawfish with a forklift and they’re everywhere!’”

The businessman in Crissey wasn’t happy about losing the product, of course, “but I had to laugh at the same time, imagining the Atlanta terminal being taken over by my crawfish … I told them the only thing they could do is try to scoop ’em up and have a crawfish boil.”


CRAWFISH FETTUCCINE

Prep: 10 min. | Cook: 23 min. | Serves 8-10

½ pound (2 sticks) butter
1 onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup diced celery
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1½ cups milk
1 (10.75-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
8 ounces processed cheese with jalapenos, cubed
2 (16-ounce) packages frozen cooked, peeled, and deveined crawfish tails, thawed
1 (16-ounce) package fettuccine, cooked
Fresh chopped chives, for garnish

•In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add flour and Cajun seasoning and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in milk and cook until slightly thickened, stirring constantly, 5 to 6 minutes. Add soup and cheese, stirring until the cheese is melted. Add the crawfish, and cook until warmed through. Serve over the fettuccine. Garnish with chives, if desired.

(Source: Paula Deen, foodnetwork.com)


CRAWFISH ETOUFFEE

Prep: 10 min. | Cook: 30 min. | Serves 4

1 stick butter
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped green bell peppers
1 pound peeled crawfish tails
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped green onions

• In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, celery and bell peppers and sauté until the vegetables are wilted, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add the crawfish, garlic, and bay leaves and reduce the heat to medium.
• Cook the crawfish for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Dissolve the flour in the water. Add the crawfish mixture. Season with salt and cayenne. Stir until the mixture thickens, about 4 minutes. Stir in the parsley and green onions and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Serve over steamed rice.

(Source: Chef Emeril Lagasse, foodnetwork.com)