Known somewhat lovingly as the mudbug, even by those who devour them by the pound, crawfish have a dirty reputation. As bottom dwelling, omnivorous, swampy carrion eaters, it’s an understandable description, but it doesn’t seem to discourage the more seasoned crawfish eaters from enjoying every part of the Cajun crustacean.
Still not everyone can stomach the gritty, swampy flavor from fresh caught crawfish. Thus at your average backyard boil you’ll often find a mass of crawfish soaking in an ice chest full salt and water. Locals call the process “purging”, a home-brewed method for cleaning live crawfish before boiling them alive into a delicious ruby red.
Like most home-remedies though, the efficacy of the procedure is a matter of myth. While many swear by the technique, research conducted by the LSU Agriculture Center demonstrated that the process does little more than remove superficial mud and debris from crawfish shells, and doesn’t really deserve to be called “purging”. The step is still generally recommended as a salt less rinse when boiling at home, so long as the crawfish are exposed to flowing oxygen. Just don’t think of it as a thorough cleanse.
The real-deal-Lucille way to purge crawfish is done at the commercial production level, and the results have created a high price demand for what folks around town call the connoisseur’s crawfish.
The primary goal of commercial purging is to stimulate an evacuation of the crawfish digestive tracts, ridding the live animals of unsavory internal waste particularly the yellow sandy grit that can make a lot of folks squeamish. Boilers who purge, like Hawk’s in Roberts Cove or Cajun Claws in Abbeville, either soak or spray their hand-selected crawfish in currents of fresh water for up to 48 hours, while depriving them of a food source. The starvation allows the crawfish to cycle through their digestive tracts, eliminating 70% of internal contaminants into the water’s flow. The result is a clean, fresh tasting tail meat, with none of the intestinal mess, and a yellowish rather than green tint to the tail fat. Much more appetizing.
Crawfish, like lobster, crabs, and other crustaceans, are often eaten in their whole form. In boils, they are dropped live in seasoned boiling water, dumped onto picnic tables lined with newspapers, cracked open by diners, and eaten without any butchering or processing. Whatever internal state the crawfish was in prior to its mortal plunge is what ends up in your pile, making purging an attractive option and one that dramatically affects the final presentation and flavor.
Somewhat labor intensive, the process comes at a higher cost, making purged crawfish a more selective product. The cleanse, while thorough, is not a sanitation necessity, only affecting taste and not the edibility of the crawfish. Unpurged crawfish are not any less safe to eat, some just argue that they don’t taste quite as good. Once the crawfish is in the pot, purged or unpurged, how the delicacy is properly seasoned, served, or accompanied is a matter of fierce debate.
When not waxing pompously about food and what should be in it, Lafayette native Christiaan Mader is writing and recording songs for his critically acclaimed band Brass Bed, a fixture of the south Louisiana music scene. He’s performed internationally with Sub Pop recording artist Shearwater, and written Ray Davies fan fiction for Vice Magazine. His music has been featured in publications like Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker, as well as on nationally syndicated radio programs and podcasts produced by NPR and KEXP. To view more of Christiaan’s work, or to contact him about a project please visit christiaanmader.pressfolios.com/.