Author and journalist Sam Irwin was the prime candidate to write a history of crawfish. Born in Breaux Bridge (known as the “crawfish capital of the world”), Irwin worked at his grandfather’s crawfish plant between semesters at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His grandfather, Joe Amy, was considered one of the pioneers of the business, entering the market in 1932. During his summers at Amy’s Fisheries, Irwin was primed to witness the Atchafalaya Basin’s shift from a fishing economy to one based primarily on crawfish. Drawing upon interviews with major players, decades of newspaper archives, and his own personal experience, Irwin has compiled an expansive history of the critter known as “the noble crawfish.” Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean was released by History Press on February 18. Fresh off the book’s publication, Irwin took a little time to discuss his research process and to explain why he was the right man for this job.
CR: First of all, why crawfish?
SI: Why crawfish? Well, you know, in retrospect it almost seems as though I was destined to write it, because I grew up in the crawfish industry. I worked with my grandfather and my father in our crawfish plant in Henderson. And we supplied crawfish meat to all the restaurants that sold crawfish, like Piccadilly.
Before that we had a grocery store and a fish-buying business—which had been started, kind of, on a boat in Butte La Rose. Because people lived up and down the Atchafalaya and on the little bayous and bays that came off the river. It was fairly remote; we were just able to get to them by boat. There were several enterprising people who would go up and down by boat with supplies for the people that lived along the river. They would also buy their fish from them and bring them back to Atchafalaya Station, where there was a railroad crossing.
This is all back in the 1920s. Somewhere around 1966, crawfish became my grandfather’s predominant business.
CR: That seems like when the boom hit the area.
SI: There were several things that brought the industry to the forefront. One of them was the rise of Cajun cuisine and another was the opening of Interstate 10. Pat’s Restaurant and two other restaurants in Henderson featured a lot of crawfish. Then when Interstate 10 opened up—gosh, all of a sudden there were twenty thousand cars blowing by there. Evangeline Downs was in its heyday. People were traveling from New Orleans and Baton Rouge to either eat at Pat’s Restaurant or go to the racetrack. You know, it was just a brand new highway that made it easy to get there. And they could eat crawfish.
So that was in, like, the ‘60s or ‘70s. That was the first kind of boom of the crawfish industry. Photo (right) by Kim Ashford.
CR: You said you knew crawfish was in your blood, but what made you decide to write a book?
SI: History Press asked me. They saw my website and saw that I’m a journalist. I’ve written for a number of publications and they approached me: “We’re History Press and we specialize in regional history. What do you have for us?” The one book that I had planned on writing was a book on roadside memorials. You know, where you see a cross on the side of the road. I had a book proposal for that, but nobody wants to publish that book!
So they said, “What else do you have?” And I said, “Well, I suppose I know a little bit about crawfish.”
CR: What was your starting point as you began to research?
SI: One day when I was hauling crawfish to Henderson, I just looked around. And in that little community, within a two-mile radius, I counted about eighteen crawfish-peeling facilities. Everybody was peeling crawfish. So I started [my research] from there.
I also learned that New Orleans had had quite a crawfish market. New Orleans that we know today is very different. They want to keep the water out! But back then, out on the west end along Lake Pontchartrain, where the river would come up close by the Bonnet Carré spillway, I could see that area being a beautiful crawfish habitat, because the tiny crawfish like shallow water where the babies can hide.
But as the town grew larger, they started draining those neighborhoods, and the crawfish didn’t have any place to hide; so they went away. One of my sources indicated that that’s why people in New Orleans started turning to the Atchafalaya Basin area for crawfish.
CR: Did you experience any roadblocks while writing or researching?
SI: No, not at all. People were very helpful. I sent out a couple of press releases that I was interested in hearing people’s “Crazy for Crawfish” stories. People were sending me emails, people were calling me up on the phone, very anxious to share their stories. And the researchers from LSU AgCenter and University of Louisiana at Lafayette were invaluable with their help. They provided me with the resources that you just can’t find at the library.
CR: It seemed like the book had a lot of scientific information as well as anecdotes and personal histories. How did you strike a tonal balance between the two?
SI: As a historian, you try to take as much from the primary source as you can. A lot of the early stuff wasn’t written down. The Crawfish Festival [held each May in Breaux Bridge] played a big role in the promotion and popularization of crawfish, and those people are my parents’ age.
My parents were very involved in the Crawfish Festival, and I interviewed all of those folks from that generation that organized it and put it on. So it may seem anecdotal, but a lot of it is interviewing primary sources and informants.
CR: What was the most surprising thing you came across?
SI: Well, I have something in mind, but I don’t want to tell you because it would give away an important part of the book! So I would say the genesis of Chinese crawfish. I was writing the book in a linear fashion, from the early information to the latest; and as I was getting close to my deadline and word limit, I started finding out some things about the importation of Chinese crawfish which were truly amazing.
CR: I’m glad you advised readers on how to determine if they’re getting authentic Louisiana crawfish. People like having the real thing. [Editor’s note: By law, a restaurant must tell you, if asked, whether or not they’re serving Louisiana crawfish.]
SI: I’m pretty spoiled! We would peel crawfish at my grandfather’s plant. When my grandmother would make crawfish stew, she’d get crawfish that had been peeled an hour earlier. You couldn’t get any fresher.
CR: What misinformation did you encounter about crawfish? In the book, you debunk the myth that crawfish was a “poor man’s food.”
SI: One thing that I find interesting are the terms “crawfish” and “crayfish.” “Crayfish” is closer to the French word écrevisse than crawfish is, but somehow the term crawfish has come to be the accepted word in Louisiana.
Another thing I found in my research: newspapers were printed every day, and you could follow somebody’s story in the paper. For instance, Howard Jacobs was a regular New Orleans columnist; he wrote a quasi-society column where he did a lot of name-dropping. But every year, he would have a Crawfish Report originally provided by a reporter from Breaux Bridge who worked for the Teche News. When that man retired, he got Percy Viosca, who was a well-known biologist. But Viosca died in ’61 or ’62, after which he got Al Scramuzza, who was a seafood merchant in New Orleans.
I had never heard of Scramuzza because I grew up in Breaux Bridge, but everybody east of the Mississippi who could get the New Orleans stations all saw his crazy commercials. You grew up on them. He’d come on the camera dressed in a doctor’s outfit with a stethoscope, and he would find someone who looked listless and depressed. He’d examine them and prescribe crawfish! And that would perk the person up.
In the Crawfish Report, Mr. Scramuzza was a little bit prone to hyperbole. He had some interesting observations. And Howard Jacobs bestowed upon him a number of titles: he called him a “Crawfish King,” he called him the “Duke of Crawfish,” he called him “the Maharaja of Crawdaddia.” So those are the things you see when researching through newspapers—you kind of become friends with the reporter. You say, “Oh, let me see what Howard Jacobs has to say this time.”
CR: Now that the book’s in print, have you learned anything that you wish you could add?
SI: Well, I had a word limit. There were a great deal of anecdotes I couldn’t fit. I wanted to write more about the market expansion in the eighties. And more about the economic influences that have done a lot to make the crawfish business go—like people figuring out they could make money peeling crawfish, and the restaurant, in turn, adding fried crawfish and crawfish étouffée to their menus, because they were simple and fast.
Then when rice prices dropped, a lot of rice farmers increased their acreage for crawfish pond production. And that story’s not finished because maybe rice prices could go up and farmers would say, “It’s just as easy for me to make the same amount of money farming rice with less acreage to crawfish.”
And I found a late article from 2012, I think it was, in an international seafood magazine that says more Chinese crawfish are being diverted to the Chinese supermarket. They hadn’t yet developed a taste for crawfish tail meat, but they’re starting to. So if the Chinese like crawfish tail meat, they may eat all their crawfish and not send it here! That might be a big future development in the Louisiana crawfish industry.
CR: What’s your next writing project?
SI: I think for the next six months to a year, I’ll be promoting this book. And really, I’m a fiction writer. You can make up a novel, but writing a research book—you’ve gotta have facts, and it takes up a lot of time. You have to have corroboration for everything you write. That’s not my favorite writing, but I did enjoy this process. In the end, it seems as though I were destined. I’m the only one who could have written this book.