Lafayette, Louisiana: Where Crawfish Is King
During Lent, when visiting the Louisiana town of Lafayette (which is the most Catholic city in America, by the way), you'll probably get two suggestions from locals on what to do for entertainment. Either you attend a crawfish boil somewhere in town, or you host one yourself. We did a bit of both.
Along with a small but mighty squad representing Southern Living, I had the assignment of putting together a crawfish boil for my first-ever visit to Lafayette, and capturing the story of our Cajun culinary adventure for the pilot episode of Southern Living's Like a Local video series. It would turn out to be just as much fun as it sounds, but we clearly had work to do in order to properly meet the challenge and do it right.
We started out at Old Tyme Grocery, which in addition to selling pantry items and snacks is also a locally famous sandwich shop where the super-sized poorboys have been unbelievably delicious for 40 years, according to devoted customers who were already waiting in line before the doors opened. It's run today by Becca Kennedy, who grew up working alongside her father Glenn Murphree working in the shop, and who's watched thousands of hungry Catholics storm the shop every Friday during Lent since she was a kid. Becca graciously took time to show me how to make Old Tyme's poorboy (yes, they spell it out), and even let me loose in the kitchen during their morning rush. Even with my first-time hands, I can report that figuring out why so many folks rush the store for this sandwich only required taking that first huge bite of perfectly crusty bread, crunchy fried crawfish, and smoothly slathered mayo. It's an ironically rich feeling to say the least.
With a bar set for how seriously Lafayettiens take their crawfish, we set out to go fishing. We found a crawfish farm in nearby Crowley, Louisiana, where I was loaned a pair of pelvis-high work boots by owner Nick Leonards, whose family has operated the farm for generations. Wide, flat, and full of swamp water, Nick gave me a literal boots-on-the-ground tour of the sprawling wetlands, where he showed me how the farm alternates between crawfishing and rice farming, and gave me a crash course on how you harvest tiny freshwater crustaceans. And when I say crash course, I mean just that — if you've ever walked in a swamp, trying to keep pace with a crawfishing family scion's expert stride through slippery mud, you know how easy it is to lose balance. Thankfully my feet, or at least my borrowed leg-length rubber boots, didn't fail me.
Once we'd captured, sorted, cleaned, and bagged the crawdaddies, we left the farm heading back to Lafayette for more crawfish boil essentials. You definitely don't just catch crawfish and throw them in a pot of boiling water expecting a pleasant outcome — that fish would certainly be cray. You need someone whose crawfish boil skills are second-to-none. So we called Deundre Zachery, whose Ragin Cajun Louisiana Kitchen Food Truck is all the rage, and convinced him to cook for us. Then we realized we needed beer, so we paid a visit to Parish Brewing, where founder Andrew Godley gave us a few cases of his crisp, slightly sweet Canebrake wheat ale to pair with our crawfish feast. And what's a crawfish boil without great music? The answer: not quite as great. So when we invited Zydeco legend Jeffery Broussard, we were thrilled and grateful that he showed up with his accordion and fellow "Creole Cowboy" who brought a wearable washboard for accompanying percussion.
Boy was it a time.
There's much more to this city of 120,000 residents than crawfish boils. There's a lovely coffee shop in downtown Lafayette called Rêve Coffee Roasters, and we had a fantastic dinner together at Vestal, an innovative new restaurant that opened in spring 2021. But what I'll remember the most is running around chasing down the delicious little red critters that are so closely tied to the cultural identity of this beautiful Louisiana town, and learning from locals exactly how a proper crawfish boil is done.