No food is more closely associated with the state of Louisiana than the crawfish. During a normal year, the state yields between 120 and 150 million pounds of them. While these so-called mudbugs are ubiquitous on New Orleans menus in étouffée dishes and gumbos, the real high-volume consumption comes in the form of crawfish boils. Fifty-pound sacks of the crustaceans are boiled in a spice-filled pot along with accoutrements like andouille sausage, corn, potatoes and whole heads of garlic before being strained and poured for party attendees’ peeling and head-sucking pleasure. (Preferably on a newspaper-covered door set across two sawhorses for convenience’s sake.)
More than just about any other food, crawfish boils necessitate purchasing in volume, an average of three to five pounds per consumer. So Louisiana residents keep a close eye on the price of crawfish, especially since the season for peak quality and size is limited, although not legally regulated. Crawfish need warmer weather and plenty of rain to grow big enough to be worth harvesting and cooking. This usually occurs during February and March, just in time for Mardi Gras festivities.
In 2014, however, the winter in Louisiana was exceptionally cold, and the little crawdads burrowed deep in the mud to stay warm. This period of dormancy led to a season that was quite short, and the typical haul was quite small. Fields that might produce 200 pounds of crawfish per acre were only yielding a sack of crawfish for each 100 acres. Prices spiked. Crawfish were small. Cajuns were sad.
But this year, it’s time to laissez les bons temps roulez, because conditions have been perfect for an excellent crop of crawdaddies. A warmer winter meant that harvests began as early as January, and they’re anticipated to continue at least through July. Prices are down by as much as 25 percent compared to 2014, with retail prices falling below $4 per pound.
Curiously, the only major hindrance to this year’s crawfish production has come in the form of immigration problems. Most of the peeling work is done by foreign workers, and the federal government limits the number of seasonal immigrant worker permits to 33,000 every six months. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, that cap was reached in January, before the harvest really got started. Federal figures show that Louisiana hired 5,546 of these H-2B visa workers in 2014, many of them to work in seafood processing plants. While this may mean that prepeeled crawfish tails could be a little harder to come by, as long as you’re willing to do the boiling and peeling yourself, it should be a great time for a mudbug party.
Finally, remember this time-honored technique for getting the most out of your boil: Step 1. Pick the biggest crawfish. Step 2. Pinch the tail. Step 3. Suck the head. Step 4. Repeat.