Crayfish Season – a Native American Tradition

crayfish season

One popular way to eat crayfish is boiled with lots of spices and corn on the cob. Image credit: KLaCombe

We’re all familiar with the holiday season, deer season and football season, but what about “crayfish season?” Yes, there’s a season for them as well. Now’s the time to expand you culinary horizons and check out what crayfish (also know as crawdads, crawfish and mudbugs) are all about.

History of Crayfish Consumption in the U.S.

Native Americans discovered the culinary delights of crayfish long before Cajuns even arrived on the continent. They used to harvest them by baiting reeds with venison, placing them in the water, and then periodically pulling them up with a crayfish hanging onto the bait. This is much the same way that sport fishermen still fish for crabs today. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until the 1930s that crayfish caught on as a significant source of protein. They then became part of the staple diet for impoverished Cajuns who couldn’t afford more glamorous cuts of meat. Today there are more than 1,600 crayfish farms in the U.S., and it should be no surprise that production is led by the state of Louisiana.

When is Crayfish Season?

Although there is a “crayfish season,” it’s not a season that is defined by specific dates. Rather, it refers to the time of year when crayfish can be easily caught in numbers to make the effort economically profitable. Typically that time period runs from approximately March through June.

Why Do People Suck Crayfish Heads?

Because crayfish are so small, the only meaty part is the tail. That doesn’t mean, however, that the tail is the only edible – or delicious – part of the animal. Crayfish heads contain hepatopancreatic tissue, which is commonly referred to as “the fat” by the folks in Louisiana. This is the orangish-yellow material that can be seen inside the head cavity. The fat is very rich and flavorful, and when combined with the cooking spices, is often considered the best part of the crayfish. To properly extract all this delectable goodness you’ll first need to pinch the head from the cooked crayfish. Next, squeeze the head between your thumb and index finger while strongly sucking out the juices from the open end. If you have not tried this, you have not truly experienced the essence of crayfish.

Crayfish season

This picture of the underside of a crayfish shows the distinct division between the head, abdomen and tail. Image credit: Rod Waddington

Where Can I Find Fresh Crayfish?

Although crayfish tails can often be found in your local supermarket, whole live crayfish are a bit more difficult to come by. This is because crayfish have a longer shelf life once the head has been removed. Asian markets often have live crayfish available when in season. Buy more than you think you will need, as 10 percent or so will most likely die before you’re ready to cook them. Keep them cool, but do not put them in water.

What is the Best Way to Cook Crayfish?

Although there are many wonderful dishes out there that star crayfish as their premier ingredient, preparing a crayfish boil is likely to produce the best overall crayfish experience. Typically, a crayfish boil will also include potatoes and corn on the cob, so it provides a complete meal. You can serve them with a spicy cocktail sauce, or eat au naturel.

Crayfish season

These live crayfish are about to become part of a delicious crayfish boil. Image credit: Tboy1987

If sourcing and cooking crayfish sounds like too much work for something you find of dubious origin to begin with, you can always pay a visit to your local Cajun kitchen during crayfish season. Most authentic Cajun restaurants will offer crayfish boils sometime between March and June.