The Sourcing Game: Are Those Crawfish from Louisiana or China?
Customers were shelling out for those "Louisiana" crawfish
You can lay your hands on just about anything in D.C. Endangered bluefin tuna? Go to Sushi Taro (where the guilt is almost as rich as the fish). Genuine Japanese kobe? Head to BLT Steak (where you'll shell out $26 per ounce for the buttery beef). Wild sturgeon caviar from the Caspian? You can still get it at Balducci's in Bethesda (where salty sevruga will set you back $155 for a 1-ounce jar).
But if you want Louisiana crawfish? Good freaking luck.
Last week, I made some calls to find out who might be boiling up mud bugs during the season in which every breathing soul in Louisiana, short of nursing infants, is sucking on crawdad heads. I pretty much came up empty, although one reader suggested I head to the Maine Avenue Fish Market and get me a bag of bugs. Which is what I did.
I got the runaround on the phone when I called Jessie Taylor Seafood to inquire about the source of its crawfish. (Snippet from my call: Where are your crawfish from? "They're frozen." Yes, but from where? "The South." OK, but Louisiana or Alabama? "Yes.")
Things didn't go much better once I arrived at the fish market. Taylor does sell crawfish, but the mud bugs come in five-pound bags that are frozen solid, as heavy as a quick-dry cement. I asked the fishmonger about the shellfish's origin, and he said they come from Louisiana and Alabama. The five-pound bag, he added, would run me $25.
I bought the bag anyway and immediately noticed the stamp across the front: PRODUCT OF CHINA. I was so annoyed that it took me a second to register the other information on the bag: WHOLE COOKED CRAWFISH, BLOCK FROZEN & UNSEASONED.
I marched across the parking lot to the Jessie Taylor stand on the other side of the fish market, where they sell ready-to-eat oysters, crabs, and crawfish. I asked the guy behind the counter about the crawfish's origins. He unflinchingly responded, "Louisiana," as proud as a first-time father. I then asked if he sells the same mud bugs as the frozen ones you can buy in a bag across the way. He said yes.
Somewhat dispirited, I headed home with my cement block of crawfish, some boil seasonings, and a strong urge to smack the nearest fishmonger across the face with a 30-pound halibut.
Mid-way through last night's telecast of the Oscars, I started to cook up my crawfish (excuse me, reheat my previously cooked crawfish), hoping that somehow the boil seasonings would flavor the shellfish in the short amount of time required to get them up to temperature.
They didn't. The mud bugs required a liberal sprinkling of Old Bay to pump up their flavor, which is not my preferred way to eat them. Dousing crawfish in seasoning mixture is, to me, the equivalent of drowning oysters in cocktail sauce. I prefer my crawfish to gently absorb the flavor of the seasonings while maintaining their essential sweetness.
And yet...and yet, I had to admit that despite all the frustrations with the questionable sourcing and all the frustrations about the lack of a proper boil, I was really digging these crawdads. I was enjoying the process of pulling them apart, sucking the heads, and exposing the moist, meaty tail section. It reminded me that eating crawfish is sort of like eating burgers: Even the mediocre ones are still mighty fine.