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Friday, March 5, 2010

The 2010 Crawfish Season in the Red Stick

This article has been published in Town Favorites Magazine.  You can visit the Town Favorites website at http://www.townfavorites.com/, follow them on Twitter @TownFavorites, and find their magazines at over 150 restaurants and businesses around Baton Rouge!  Pick up a copy today!

The 2010 Crawfish Season in the Red Stick

By Jay D. Ducote


This year was well on its way to being a banner year for Louisiana crawfish until a hard freeze in early January changed everything.

“The outlook for this crawfish season started out on a very promising note. Any time we get abundant natural rainfall in the late summer and early fall, it bodes well for the survival of crawfish in their burrows,” said Burt Tietje, a crawfish farmer who sits on the board of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association. “I firmly believed that my problem by this point in the season would have been too many crawfish for the early markets and a rapidly dropping wholesale price.”

However, this was not the case at the early part of this season. Burt, who also works for the Jeff Davis Economic Development Office, continued by saying, “This is a true story... so far I have averaged losing $75-100 each time I have run my traps when labor and fuel are figured in. I keep fishing because you never know when the crawfish will turn on and I want to have fresh bait out there when they do.”

In 1997, Southwest Louisiana had very similar wet weather followed by a severe freeze. “I had to break ice out of the traps, but they were full of crawfish and I never missed a lick that season,” Burt exclaimed. “This year is a complete mystery to me and to everyone I talk to. Perhaps the hard freeze came at a time when the young crawfish were particularly vulnerable. I just don't have an explanation.”

What the Louisiana crawfish industry desperately needs now is some sunshine and warmer overnight temperatures to get the crawfish moving. Mudbugs are cold-blooded creatures and the cooler the water; the less biologic activity is taking place in the ponds and basins. It is estimated that for every 10 degrees of water temperature, activity doubles in the ponds.

Even with a cloudy supply of farm-raised crawfish and an uncertainty about when the basin will have water diverted to it, the demand for crawfish in the Capital area is starting to pick up. Mardi Gras has come and gone and spring is near. Warmer temperatures won’t just bring more crawfish; they will also bring more crawfish boils, all-you-can-eat crawfish specials, tail pinchers, and head suckers. Oh yes Baton Rouge, Crawfish Season is here!

Jay Ducote stands with two batches of live crawfish at Tony's Seafood. Each basket holds up to 500 lbs. of crawfish!

I recently took a look at the Baton Rouge crawfish scene to see where I could find exceptional boiled crawfish in the Red Stick. My first stop, which should be no surprise to anybody who knows seafood in Baton Rouge, was at Tony’s Seafood on Plank Road. Tony’s is best described as an institution, and is in fact the largest seafood market in the Gulf South. Started as a produce stand by Tony Pizzolato in 1959, by the early 1980’s Tony’s had transformed into the thriving seafood market that we know it as today.

The fine people at Tony’s gave me a tour of the facility including a chance to stand behind the counter, and a glimpse at their gigantic walk in cooler where they keep live crawfish. Tony’s cooks their crawfish in batches of up to 500 lbs. at a time in giant baskets and boiling pots. On a prime day, Tony’s can boil up to 30 pots, or as much as 15,000 lbs. of crawfish! Tony’s has great crawfish for the average palate. While they are mass-boiled, the flavor is great and extremely edible. However, if you are the kind of crawfish eater that wants their lips to burn eyes to water when eating spicy, red mudbugs, then Tony’s “friendly” spice may not be quite what you are looking for.

A large batch of freshly boiled crawfish at Tony's Seafood is ready to be served.

My next stop occurred down Florida Boulevard at Randy Montalbano’s Seafood and Catering. Randy Montalbano, Jr. greeted me as I walked in to his restaurant and offered a quick tour of his kitchen. Although the scale of Montalbano’s operation is nowhere close to that of Tony’s, their seafood easily rivals that of their larger counterpart. Founded in June of 2006 by Randy and his father, Randy Montalbano, Sr., Montalbano’s specializes in boiled seafood and other Cajun dishes, providing off-site catering and in-store family-friendly dining. During the peak of the season, Montalbano’s averages around 10,000 lbs. of boiled crawfish per week. Randy let me sample some of his crawfish to get a taste of his spice and flavor offering. Let me tell you friends, C’est Bon! Montabano’s crawfish left my lips tingling without feeling overwhelmed by extreme heat. The crawfish had an excellent flavor with a great balance of salt and spice.

Boiled Crawfish at Randy Montalbano's Seafood and Catering... C'est Bon!

While exploring the Red Stick area for crawfish, I also felt like it would be good to head out to the “suburbs” where I came across Jimbo’s Seafood on Jones Creek Road. Teresa Guerin kindly welcomed me and gave a detailed tour of their crawfish business. Like Montalbano’s, Jimbo’s boils farm-raised and basin crawfish to perfection. Jimbo’s has been serving up fresh and boiled seafood in the same location for the past 16 years and has built a loyal clientele. Teresa showed me firsthand how Jimbo’s hand-picks their crawfish and purges them in salt water to make sure their customers get nothing but the best. After watching preparation, Teresa served me a batch of fresh crawfish. Along side the crawdaddies came beautifully boiled corn and potatoes that are always a perfect complement. Jimbo’s batch impressed me just as much as Montalbano’s. I don’t think they had quite the heat, but they had every bit as much flavor. I wouldn’t hesitate ordering from them next time I wanted a few pounds of mudbugs to go!

MJ sorts through the live crawfish at Jimbo's Seafood on Jones Creek as Jay Ducote looks on.

Hopefully some warm weather will bring in a bountiful harvest so that we can all enjoy this Crawfish Season like we’ve come to know and love in South Louisiana. I hope you enjoy it as much as I will!

Jay D. Ducote is the author of the blog Bite and Booze, which chronicles his culinary and indulgent adventures around Baton Rouge, South Louisiana, and the world. It can be found at http://www.biteandbooze.com/. You can also reach him by email at jaydducote@gmail.com.

Eric Ducote took all the pictures for this article. Credit goes to Hunter Brown for the graphic design of the restaurant sign collage.

Montalbano's Seafood on UrbanspoonTony's Seafood on Urbanspoon
Jimbo's Seafood on Urbanspoon  

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