The Crawfish Festival: Sights, Sounds and History

May 20, 2014

Festival season is winding down but crawfish season is still going strong. A few weeks ago, I decided to take a trip to Breaux Bridge for the world famous Breaux Bridge crawfish festival. And who better to show a Yankee girl around than Sam Irwin, a freelance writer who just put out a book all about crawfish. It’s called Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean.

"Well, we’re here at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish festival, which has its origins with Breaux Bridge’s centennial celebration in 1959," Sam says. "That 1959 centennial was not really of the town’s founding but of its incorporation, but that was a pretty good excuse to have a celebration."

Sam Irwin
Credit Ann Marie Awad / WRKF News

There is music everywhere, and if by some chance there isn’t a band playing on one end of the festival or another, it’s being piped in through speakers. There is a steady accordion beat under everything, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could hear it across town. There’s a lot of dancing, even though it’s sweltering. Even some vendors and moving their hips a little bit under the shade of their tents. And there are lots of vendors, selling crawfish jewelry, crawfish artwork, someone’s even selling a table specially designed for eating boiled crawfish, with a hole in the middle where you can drop the shells.

None of this is new to Sam.

"I grew up in it, my parents were involved in it, I was in the marching band, I marched in all of the parades, my sisters were in all of the beauty contests and stuff, my younger sister Susan was the junior crawfish queen and the big girl crawfish queen," Sam says. "I had to escort my sister in the beauty pageant when I was a little kid."

The beginnings of the crawfish festival were full of characters. First of all, to raise money for the festival, a group of Breaux Bridge men grew out their beards, dressed in period attire and held a kangaroo court, handing out citations to any man without a beard. Then there was Leon Breaux, a descendant of the Breauxs who founded Breaux Bridge. One morning in 1960 he woke up and declared himself the Eternal Crawfish King. Leon had nothing to do with the folks who organized the festival, but issued a royal proclamation to announce the festival each year and each year he put himself at the head of the parade. And while Leon Breaux is no longer around to lead the parade, there are still some Crawfish Festival traditions that live on.

"I just like to honor the crawfish for what it is."

 "Ever since 1959, they’ve been having a crawfish cookoff, you know a cooking contest," Sam says. "Those are time-honored county fair contests you kind of do, we used to do a peeling contest and hey still do the étouffée contest, of course." I had to check this out, so while Sam signed some books, I wandered off to the cookoff tent, flanked on all sides by people stirring pots of delicious smelling étouffée.

Crawfish beignets covered in cheddar cheese and "son-in-law" sauce.
Credit Ann Marie Awad / WRKF News

Even though it’s got its own competition, étouffée is not the only way you can enjoy crawfish at this festival.  It’s here in all forms, shapes and sauces; There are things like cajun pistols, which are these rolls stuffed with crawfish, cheese and spices; crawfish beignets, likewise covered in cheese and spicy mayo. I see crawfish hot dogs, crawfish patties and of course, boiled crawfish. But, Sam is something of a traditionalist. He only likes étouffée, bisque and stew.

"So, I won’t try to those fancy dancy dishes," Sam says. "I just honor the crawfish for what it is, the crawfish."

Learn more about Louisiana’s longstanding love affair with crawfish, from industry to étouffée, check out Sam Irwin’s book, Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean. Sam also had a chance to come by the WRKF studios to answer some more questions about the book. Have a listen: