Behind the Scenes: Crawfish insanity at the Mudbug Madness Festival
June 12, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a two-part series. Check back next week to real the final story.
There is no down time for culinary and travel writers. At least, that's been my experience. And that's a good thing. Nearly every trip and dining experience presents story opportunities. Case in point, my recent overnight business trip to Shreveport, Louisiana. What I thought would be a wasted Sunday spent waiting for the only nonstop flight to Denver at 4:45 p.m., suddenly became a story expedition when I discovered the 30th annual Mudbug Madness Festival was 3 blocks from my hotel. My hunt for a story did not disappoint.
In all due respect to my fellow Louisianans nestled in the northwestern corner of the state, Shreveport is not one of my preferred vacation destinations. On the other hand, it becomes a more interesting prospect when the Mudbug Madness Festival each Memorial Day transforms Shreveport into a go-to spot for Louisiana cuisine, music and culture. Of course, for someone who grew up on the south side of Interstate 10 in bayou country and who cherishes indelible memories of crawfish boils on hot spring and early summer weekends, Shreveport was not a place I considered a crawfish Mecca. You live and learn, I guess.
We're not Texans!
Long before Interstate 49 connected Shreveport with the Cajun part of Louisiana, Interstate 20 was Shreveport's connection to a big city, Dallas. Apparently, this separation from Louisiana's bayou country and New Orleans resulted in some name-calling when Shreveport folks were accused of being more Texan than Louisianan. Them are fightin' words.
So how did Shreveport fight back? They didn't get mad, they got even. In 1984, advocates from Downtown Shreveport Unlimited sought to prove the town's "Louisiana-ness" through the creation of Mudbug Madness, a celebration one of the state's favorite culinary past times, the crawfish boil. Although Breaux Bridge enjoys "Crawfish Capital of the World" status bestowed upon it by the state legislature in 1959, Shreveport's festival is certainly not inconsequential.
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Mudbug Madness was born as a two-day crustacean-centric street festival. Today, it is a four-day event featuring crawfish dishes of every kind, Creole, Cajun cuisine — including alligator — music and crafts. Throughout the festival, there's nonstop music, mostly Zydeco, on the main stage. Names like "America's Hottest Accordion" winner Dwayne (Dopsie) Rubin & the Zydeco Hellraisers, Professor Porkchop and the Dirty Dishes and Louisiana Hall of Fame members Wayne Toups & ZeDeCajun energize the crawfish worshipping crowd.
The festival also features crawfish eating and calling contests. We'll get to one of the eating contests next week, but you'll forgive me if I skip crawfish calling, at least for now.
What's a mudbug?
Of course, crawfish are the main attraction. Last year, more than 200,000 festivalgoers pinched tails and sucked the heads of more than 80,000 pounds of boiled crawfish. I have no idea how many thousands of pounds of crawfish the many food vendors served up in their various crawfish dishes — fried, etouffee, stew and bisque — but I estimate at least another 10,000 pounds.
In addition to its revered place in cuisine and culture, crawfish play a major role in Louisiana's economy. Crawdaddy. Mudbug. Crayfish. Crawfish. Whichever name you call the mud-dwelling crustacean, say it and most people think of Louisiana, as they should. Louisiana was the first state to have an official crustacean. Crabs are revered in Maryland and Oregon. While Europeans consider crawfish a delicacy, Louisianans consider them a necessity.
Each spring through June, more than 100 million pounds of the delectable crustacean are harvested in rivers, spillways, swamps, mostly in the Atchafalaya River Basin, and 184,000 acres of farm ponds each year. Louisiana's $300 million crawfish industry — 99 percent of the domestic crop — creates more than 7,000 jobs, directly or indirectly. For something available for only a few short months each year, that's quite impressive.
The crawfish think tank, Louisiana State University's AgCenter, has great information on its website, http://www.lsuagcenter.com. One publication touts nutritional benefits of crawfish: low in calories (at least when boiled; etouffee's certainly not) and a good source of protein, vitamins and other nutrients. They even provide an "oil free" roux recipe for crawfish stew lovers seeking a lower calorie version of the dish. Sorry folks, "oil free" does not a roux make! It's darn near sacrilegious
Heat, humidity and crawfish
My visit to Shreveport reminded me why I left Louisiana despite loving the state so much. Even standing still, I wilted in the 84-degree heat with 90 percent humidity. The air didn't move and thunderstorms threatened in the distance, but it didn't stop the thousands of crawfish revelers from attending the festival's last day.
The festival's a credit card free zone. Active service members with IDs get in free. I'm not an active service member. With no ATM card on me, I had only $15 to spend on food and drink after paying the $5 entrance fee. It was time to get the lay of the land, so I stalked the vendors' kiosks four times before making my dining decision. This was an important deliberation.
Would it be fried alligator on a stick? No thank you. I know, it "tastes like chicken," but I'll pass. Jambalaya? Looked good, but I make a yummy jambalaya. Natchitoches meat pies? Yum. A definite possibility. A pound and a half of hot, boiled crawfish with red potatoes and corn on the cob? Too messy. Didn't want to smell like crawfish for the trip home. What about fried catfish? The catfish looked too thick — I like mine thin, fried in peanut oil, crispy with a side of hushpuppies. Fried shrimp? Nah. Too pedestrian for such a diverse food festival. With $15 to spend, I had to carefully consider my options. And I did.
As I surveyed the food choices, one of my considerations was "how many people were in line" at each vendor. Louisianans know their food and they won't stand in line for something subpar. The fried crawfish vendor didn't have a line, but I observed them frying up the crawfish to order. That settled it for me.
I went for the fried crawfish, fries and an oversized bottle of Sierra Mist. It was an ample supply of fat grams and calories to get me back to Denver. When I asked for a fork, the vendor looked at me like I had two heads. Obviously, he thought this yahoo didn't know fried crawfish were meant to be finger food, at least at festivals. Fortunately, I managed to negotiate some paper towels. Best of all, I still had $5 left over for the trip home or to treat myself to an icy Geauxsicle.
There were three "seating" options — standing at one of the long, red plastic covered counters surrounded by folks sucking crawfish heads, small tables under umbrellas, but already claimed, or seated at one of the long tables under a huge roof over the main stage from which energetic Zydeco emanated. Couples — and some solos — were dancing to the refrains of this uniquely Cajun music. What a scene. I loved it, so I chose a table where I found a nice end seat from which I could observe to my heart's content while enjoying my prized lunch.
Come back next week and find out what other delights I discovered as an accidental tourist at a crawfish festival in my home state.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.