The big boiling pots filled with crawfish are roaring this time of year in backyards throughout Louisiana, during the peak of the season. At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held April 25-27 and May 1-4, there are nearly 20 dishes prepared with crawfish from vendors throughout the state. One of the top selling dishes at the festival is made with mudbugs: crawfish Monica, which turns 25 this year. Visitors go looking for a good crawfish dish such as this once they hit the festival grounds.
Some believe that any brand of crawfish will do, while others insist on using only crawfish produced in the state. Personally, I loathe those rubbery, frozen tails imported from China, which cannot compare to the plump, succulent, fresh Louisiana crawfish tails we all enjoy. It is the luxury of our heritage. I was raised on Louisiana crawfish and could peel fast before I could ride a tricycle. I knew how to mix ketchup with horseradish before I could pour myself a soft drink. And I have peeled many a crawdad at Jazz Fest. There are several dishes which stand out at the ‘fest made with Louisiana crawfish, including crawfish Monica, crawfish sacks, and crawfish strudel.
This year, mudbug creations at Jazz Fest include crawfish bread from Panorama Foods in Marksville; crawfish sausage po-boys from Vaucresson Sausage in New Orleans; crawfish etouffée, boiled crawfish, stuffed puffs, and Cajun crawfish rice from Ledet and Louque in Gramercy; crawfish sacks and crawfish beignets from Patton’s Caterers in Slidell; crawfish pies by Mrs. Wheat’s Foods in New Orleans; crab and crawfish stuffed mushrooms from Prejean’s restaurant in Lafayette (they also make a fabulous pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo); spicy crawfish sushi rolls from Ninja in New Orleans; crawfish remoulade from Papa Ninety Catering in Belle Chase; crawfish bisque from Baquet’s Lil’ Dizzy Café in New Orleans; and crawfish strudel from Coffee Cottage in River Ridge. That’s a lot of crawfish at the fairgrounds.
People who love crawfish usually feel strongly about getting only Louisiana mudbugs because there is a difference. According to Stephen Minvielle, director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmer’s Association, the superiority of Louisiana crawfish goes beyond the taste.
Speaking to me in a telephone interview from a boat on the way to his crawfish pond just outside New Iberia, he comments, “Unless you want to grow another appendage on your body, I wouldn’t eat anything but Louisiana crawfish.” Get imported mudbugs such as Chinese crawfish, he says, and you risk a number of health issues. “A lot of the testing that Commissioner Odem has been doing shows up things like antibiotics in imported crawfish, which can cause ovarian cancer. There are all kinds of pesticides that importers also use. Louisiana crawfish are the safest crawfish in the world. We cannot use herbicides or pesticides in our operations. It is a totally natural product.”
Crawfish means big business in Louisiana. Minvielle reports that a survey was recently done, which concludes that farmed acres for Louisiana crawfish have surpassed 200,000, “with a farm bank value of over $100,000,000; it creates a lot of jobs,” he asserts. “Louisiana is addressing the growing demand from around the United States,” he says. “Everyone wants to dance like us, party like us, and they sure want to eat like us.” But the cost is climbing; it now costs $140 to ship one sack of live crawfish Federal Express, and prices per pound are going up in seafood markets this year.
But that doesn’t stop us from loving our mudbugs. The folks at Kajun Kettle Foods sure go through a lot of crawfish during Jazz Fest. “Over the past 25 years, 64,000 pounds of crawfish have been used to make our crawfish Monica,” says Monica Davidson, Kajun Kettle Vice President. She is married to Pierre Hilzim, who created the dish, which has been fed to former Russian premiere Mikhail Gorbachev, Paul Simon, Allen Toussaint, actor John Goodman, director Francis Ford Coppola, Pope John Paul 11, and President Ronald Reagan, among others. Jazz Fest regular Banu Gibson named crawfish Monica her favorite dish at the ‘fest. “It takes us 5,200 pounds of rotini per year to produce enough crawfish Monica for Jazz Fest,” Davidson remarks. “That’s 130,000 pounds of rotini for the past 25 years, and 15,000 gallons of Cajun cream sauce.”
On a smaller scale, John Caluda, owner of Coffee Cottage in Slidell, prepares a marvelous crawfish strudel for Jazz Fest. “We sell 7-10,000 strudels for the festival,” he says. “This is my 11th year.” The CIA grad closed his Harahan restaurant last year and now exclusively handles catering for businesses, in addition to doing Jazz Fest. “You call up and say that you need to feed, say 30 people for a meeting or a party, and we show up with everything from pasta dishes to grilled salmon and all the beverages and paper products; we’ll just drop it off at your office,” he says. Chef Caluda’s yummy strudels are designed with phyllo dough and a luscious crawfish filling that includes pepper Jack cheese, cream, and vegetables, a must-try at the ‘fest. “We freeze them and take them our to Jazz Fest and cook it fresh right there. It’s like a crawfish pie in phyllo dough. Strudel just means that it is rolled up,” he explains.
Tim Patton, owner of Patton’s Caterers in Slidell says, “We’ve been at Jazz Fest since 1988. We sold 25,000 crawfish sacks last year, and 125,000 of the little crawfish beignets.” His crawfish sacks are “like French crepes tied with little green onions” and are prepared at Patton’s commissary in Slidell. “At Jazz Fest, we have a tent behind out booth with 12 fryers going all the time, non-stop. We’ve done other festivals, including out-of-state festivals.” Patton’s catering clients have included the New Orleans Museum of Art and the National D-Day Museum.
Calls from people wanting to be vendors at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival come into the administration office each year, almost until the first day of the ‘fest, according to festival organizers. But getting to be a concessionaire at Jazz Fest is highly competitive, and some say nearly impossible, since the booths are already “locked up.” It is an enormous undertaking for the caterers, restaurateurs, chefs, and non-profit organizations that sell food as vendors each year. “But it’s worth it,” says Patton. “They always deliver the crowds and the music is great.”