The Houston Crawfish Invasion
Crawfish season is here, and it’s serious, serious business in Houston.
Crawfish season has again descended upon Houston. Boilers have unfurled their bold yellow, black, and red crawfish banners, and the supermarket chains have put out signs noting the crustaceans’ availability.
To mangle Hank Williams, today, it’s no longer just the Bayou City’s Thibodauxs and Fontenots who flock by the dozen to eat crawfish off of newspapers. It’s a fairly recent development, but a huge cross-section of the state’s largest, most diverse metropolis now enjoys the wonders of a crawfish boil. Over the past few decades, the lowly mudbug has gone from rare backyard delicacy to metro-area phenomenon, and one that embodies Houston’s status as a cultural crossroads.
Crawfish season is serious, serious business here.
Last month I journeyed to The Boot, a Louisiana-themed ice house in Houston’s rapidly Cajunizing Heights area, hoping to score my wife and I seafood po’ boys. It was a Saturday afternoon, and crawfish season was just picking up steam. Boot employees were far too busy slinging crawfish to answer the phone, and when I went to place my order in person, the entire street was chock-a-block with cars two-deep in the parking lot. My mission was a total failure, but I have only myself to blame: I should have known I wouldn’t be able to muscle my way through the hordes of crawfish-peelers at the beginning of the season.
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.
Gossen remembers that at that time, they were more like wild game. The day when rice farmers were giving over their fields to crawfish for the off-season was still decades away. “When I grew up in Lafayette, most all of the crawfish came from the Atchafalaya [River] Basin, between March, April, May and June, and then it was over,” he said. “Of course, the season starts now in November, and they are small and all, but you start seeing them in different restaurants in November, December.”
Thanks to its contemporary status as a cash crop, a generation of Gulf Coasters on both sides of the Sabine think of crawfish as something everyone from New Orleans to Houston has regarded as a staple for centuries. But even across the border, the big city New Orleans Creoles once regarded them as Cajun ditch food not worthy of space on the city’s best tables. Peasant fare. Yes, New Orleanians ate them around the middle of the last century, but they did so in their backyards. And you had to know a guy with a hook-up, as New Orleans native (and Cadillac Ranch designer) Hudson Marquez recalls over email. “All the swells had some secret crawfish source they claimed were the best boilers,” he wrote. “Backyard guys. My dad’s was a guy named Schmidt. He loved saying ‘I’m going to the Schmidt house for twenty pounds.’”
Houston and New Orleans seem to have caught full-blown crawfish fever at roughly the same time. In the national eye, Cajun culture subsumed Creole culture in New Orleans in the 1980s, thanks in large part to Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme and the film The Big Easy, which (falsely) represented New Orleans as much a hotbed of Cajun music, zydeco, and crawfish boils as a city of po’ boys, sophisticated Creole dining, Mardi Gras Indians, and brass band-led street parades. (The HBO series Treme presents a far more accurate picture.)
Meanwhile, in Houston, Gossen’s efforts were starting to pay off. People started inquiring about eating that little red clawed garnish he’d been putting on their plates back at Don’s, and at the Magnolia, it really took off.
“Back in the day say around 1989-ish we would always go to Magnolia Bar and Grill on Fountainview for happy hour,” recalled John Swasey. Back then, as Swasey remembers, Gossen was charging just $2.50 per pound. “And lots of cold beer,” Swasey continues. “For years this was happening. The crawfish was just to get you to come in and drink beer. Like really really good meaty peanuts.”
At around the same time, crawfish farming was finding its legs in Louisiana, and in some rice-growing parts of Texas too. Rice farmers realized that by flooding their fields post-harvest they could get not one but two crops from their land: one animal, and one grain, the latter subsidized by the government, the former sometimes sold for cash at the roadside. From the 1960s to today, managed crawfish ponds increased fourteen-fold, from about 10,000 acres to 144,000. Gossen estimates that less than 10 percent of all crawfish consumed are now harvested from swamps, the way virtually all of them had been when he was a youth.
As the volume of product increased, so did Gossen’s efforts to sell them in Houston. “We started the Spring Crawfish Festival—I did it for seventeen years, and then got out of it,” Gossen explained. (Spring refers to a Houston suburb, not the season. It is now known as the Texas Crawfish Festival.) “When we first started it, it was very unique. People came out there and ate crawfish. It was like a frenzy. And as it became more mainstream, it became just like going to a barbecue cook-off.”
Like many Houstonians, Lucas Strom remembers catching (but not eating) crawfish from the city’s bayous and drainage ditches as a kid. That festival was the first place he ate one, sometime around 1993. “It was a reasonably-sized festival back then,” he said. “It’s a nightmare now.”
Crawfish crept into Houston not just through Gossen’s efforts, but also Fiesta‘s, Houston’s international supermarket chain. There, at their flagship location at Bellaire Boulevard and Hillcroft Avenue, was where Houston chef Joshua Martinez first encountered the edible variety (unlike the ones he caught in ditches as a kid). He was was ten at the time. “My cousin and I would barbecue and boil every weekend honing our skills on both fronts all through middle school and high school,” Martinez remembered. “For me the idea of crawfish became a big deal when I would go to Big Woodrow’s [a now closed hybrid of Texas icehouse with Louisiana fare] and eat them on a Saturday back in the early nineties.”
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.”
So far, crawfish have yet to conquer the rest of Texas with anything like the magnitude of the sway they hold over Houston. Nate’s Seafood in Addison gets rave reviews from crawfish devotees in DFW, as does the Shoal Creek Saloon in Austin. Neither of those cities is what you would call a mudbug hotbed, though, nor is San Antonio, as transplanted Houstonian Wayne Bertone attests.
“I can tell you that crawfish are a foreign thing to the people out here,” Bertone said. “A half-pound plate is the normal offering, and they’re boiled to a mushy mess. No flavor whatsoever, just hot, and they sprinkle the dry crab boil over your plate before they serve them. The idea of throwing a crawfish boil confuses people too.”
Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell says that Austin’s DIY crawfish culture reminds him of the deep East Texas of his youth. He likes Shoal Creek and Quality Seafood, but generally speaking, it’s a backyard affair. “I just go to a party usually if a friend is doing a boil,” he said. “Ya know, Beaumont style.”
Gossen has his own opinion on why they’ve yet to take off in the capital. “In Austin there are not a whole lot of big restaurants,” he said. “Crawfish takes up a lot of seats [and time]. Most of the restaurants are small there and [crawfish-eaters] stay for an hour and a half. Unless you have the seating to do that, you kill your other business.”
That is not the case in Houston, where backyard crawfish boils have been a widespread rite of spring since the 1990s, at least. And since the early 2000s, especially post-Katrina, more and more Louisianans have been moving to town, bring with them Pelican State cooking techniques and opening up crawfish houses all over Houston.
Wayne Gonsoulin, one of the owners of the Boil House—a super-traditional Louisiana crawfish shack in the Heights—says that his style differs from what he found prevailing here before his arrival from his native New Orleans, after Katrina. “The main difference is the soaking,” he explained. “Because of the Vietnamese influence here, most [Texans] will boil their crawfish in regular water, take them out, and then put all the seasoning on the outside, and then put some type of lemon-garlic-butter sauce on top of it. The way we do it is more indicative of Southeast Louisiana. And maybe it’s more a Baton Rouge or New Orleans thing, because we do it more like a gumbo, where we put the seasoning in the water, put everything in the water. That’s how I grew up doing it.”
There is no clear accord on cooking methods, but the general consensus is that Louisianans spice their crawfish while boiling, Texans do so after, and the Vietnamese do one or the other and then add sauces to the mix. Cooking styles would require a whole other article, but those are the general principles.
Several Texans I spoke with prefer the Louisiana variety. “Louisiana has flavors,” said Darla Upton McCorkle, of Jefferson. “It’s spicy but it’s not just about spice. It’s good. They purge them before boiling and will do it many times. It tastes clean despite being pulled from the mud. Texas? Ugh. It’s this weird attempt to tip its hat to its neighbor but it’s just hot, and they get lazy with the purge.”
Half-Cajun Austin attorney (and Houston native) Joe de la Fuente holds his native state’s cooking style in low esteem. “I cannot imagine anything that makes less sense,” he said. “Maybe boiling your brisket for ten hours and then putting it on top of the smoker for five minutes? Maybe vegan boudin? Or maybe enchiladas made with Subway’s flatbread? Nope, none of those things are as stupid as boiling bland crawfish and then sprinkling cayenne on the shells.”
But no matter how they are made, Houstonians continue to consume them in abundance. They are devoured year-round in the Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown, and in season, in the crawfish houses all over the city. Gossen is almost certainly correct when he puts Houston ahead of Louisiana in annual consumption. “Just H-E-B alone. Think of how much they sell,” he said. “Phenomenal. I know one of their big suppliers and he supplies them in the millions of pounds.”
I visited the Boil House on Mardi Gras night to pick up five pounds of crawfish (boiled with corn so spicy it melted my half-Louisiana-bred wife’s face, potatoes, and Polish kielbasa), a little shrimp, and a king cake from famed New Orleans bakery Gambino’s. “This is the first time we’ve done this, by popular demand,” Gonsoulin said. The place was steadily busy all night, as was nearby BB’s, another Texas-Louisiana-themed Heights restaurant. Seating was hard to come by—all of the restaurant’s problems are the kinds you kind of want to have: accommodating the neighbors complaining about your crowds, finding more parking and the like. There is talk of expansion, but not, as yet, to the rest of Texas.
“By the time we start preparing them here, they were in the water in Jennings [Louisiana] two or three hours ago,” he said. He wants to maintain those high standards but can’t quite figure out how. “We get people in here from Austin and Dallas, and they are like ‘Hey man, you thinking of opening up there? Are you looking for investors?’ I tell them I want to make sure this is viable. We are still in the grassroots stages. We’re growing. And Dallas and Austin? I would love to get in those markets. But I’ve seen it in the medical industry. You can grow too big too fast. Quality starts to slip, and that’s our big thing.”
So far, the Texas crawfish farming industry is dwarfed by that of Louisiana, and according to Gossen most of it is concentrated in the Beaumont area. Maybe the rice farmers west of Houston could start growing crawfish. “There is a lot of rice around Katy, but I don’t know if they are growing them there,” Gossen says. “I would think once they figure out they could make money with them, and they don’t have to haul them as far, I don’t know why not.”
Why not, indeed? Beware, Austin, San Antonio, and DFW: the crawfish are coming.