The Seafood Issue

The Houma Indians, The Cajuns and Crawfish


You might be surprised to learn that the Cajuns were not the first to look at a crawfish and think: “Hmm, that looks tasty. I think I will eat 200 of them for dinner.” Still, crawfish proved the perfect food for the Cajuns when they got to Louisiana, in that it was cheap, nutritious and an ideal canvas for the application of French culinary techniques.

But if the Cajuns didn’t eat them first, who did? And anyway, where did all these Cajuns, with their strange appetites and great recipes, come from anyway? And why do people associate all this with the city of New Orleans? The answers are a little more complicated than you might expect, and involve three big journeys.


The Cajuns came to Louisiana when the British kicked them out of the Acadia colony of New France in 1755. That is a bigger deal than it might seem. Acadia wasn’t a colony in the way Jamestown was a colony — a few buildings, a blacksmith, a church and some walls to keep out invaders. Rather, it was a colony the way Virginia was a colony, and was about the same size. Meanwhile, New France wasn’t some tiny fly-by-night patch of ground, or little island, claimed by some guy with a boat and a flag. At the time, New France was the largest empire in the history of North America by contiguous geography, by far, clocking in at 3,000,000 square miles — about the size of the continental United States today. So, what happened?

Claiming land isn’t the same as controlling land. Particularly in the New World in the 18th century, territory was aspirational and, in reality, you only owned as much as your last war revealed. (George Washington taught the British this lesson in 1783, for example.) So even though the empire of New France was large geographically, its population was very small. Depending on alliances in Europe and wars in the New World, anyone at any time could claim or chip away at anyone else’s holdings. And the British really, really wanted the strategically located Acadia (today, Nova Scotia in Canada).

Before the British expelled the Acadians, the feisty French fought with them for 45 years. Finally, during the French and Indian War, the British gained the upper hand. The land was thus seized. When the dust settled, the Brits gave the Acadians a chance to sign oaths of allegiance to King George II. The Acadians refused (better dead than redcoat), and the British banished them in what was called “Le Grand Dérangement.”

It was a pretty traumatic affair. As they left their homes, thousands of French colonists died from disease, in firefights, and on board sinking ships. Though the Acadians went all over the place, the best of them ended up in modern-day Louisiana.


Speaking of having your land stolen, the Acadians were not the first to set foot here. Before Europeans arrived in the New World, several American Indian tribes owned Louisiana, including the Chitimacha, Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Natchez, Tunica and Houma. The Houma migrated to modern-day Baton Rouge from Mississippi and Alabama, and had a rough go of it overall, fighting with other tribes, and eventually having to deal with the Europeans steadily encroaching as well. (The Houma and the Bayagoula tribes marked the border of their hunting grounds with red poles — those rouge batons would later give the city its name.)

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Houma had moved almost entirely to remote areas that today are part of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, in the southernmost part of the state. Eventually, the Houma established Ouiski Bayou, a settlement near what is now Downtown Houma. The Spanish at this time claimed to own the land, but “gave” it to the Houma, and when French settlers — most notably, the Acadians — came to the region, they even called the community Houma. (I should note that this is the simple version, and all this happened over the course of a hundred years.) The Houma and the Acadians were all pioneers — they came in small groups and had to subdue some seriously hostile lands amid multiple wars being waged all around them.

I don’t need to tell you that things didn’t go great for the tribes. Spanish Louisiana territory returned to the French in 1803, who then sold it to the United States, who did not honor the Spanish agreement with the Houma people.

How does this relate to crawfish? The name “Houma” is a Choctaw word meaning “red,” and the tribe’s symbol was — you guessed it — a crawfish. It represented bravery. The Houma, who had been doing it for centuries in the South, excelled at harvesting crawfish and other seafood. It was a pretty useful skill that their new Acadian neighbors learned as well. By all accounts I could find, the Acadians and the Houma had cordial relations. This was a tough, sparsely populated place, and cooperation, cultural exchange and intermarriage were common behaviors for generations. (That is one reason why your grandmother insists that you are 1/16 Choctaw, regardless of what 23andMe says.)

There are other crawfish origin stories as well. According to Cajun folklore, crawfish were not waiting for the Acadians when they got here. Rather, they brought the beloved bug with them, though in a different form. As the fairytale goes, when the British kicked out the Acadians, the lobsters went with them. (I mean, it’s not like the British know how to cook anything, and if you’re going to be boiled and eaten, at least die to become magnificent cuisine.) As the lobsters journeyed to Louisiana, leaving behind the cold Atlantic waters, they began transforming magically, and by the time they reached the warm bayous of Louisiana, they were well-adapted to their new environment, much as the Acadians had likewise transformed.

Regardless of whether crawfish were magic lobsters or already here, the point is, when the Acadians arrived, they weren’t the first to eat them. What they likely were first to do, however, is prepare crawfish with French panache. It didn’t take long for the Acadians to apply what they knew about cooking lobsters to cooking crawfish.

To clear up one more thing: No one likely called the Acadians “Cajuns” for another hundred years. That word came along during the Civil War, when northern soldiers came to town. Historians found one of the first recorded uses of the word in a letter from a Union lieutenant, who described a typical Cajun as a “half-savage creature, of mixed French and Indian blood, lives in swamps and subsists by cultivating small patches of corn and sweet potatoes. The wants of the Cajun are few, and his habits are simple…”

This remains pretty accurate overall.

During all this, there was one more big journey in store for the crawfish. The Houma had already mastered the humble crustacean, and the Acadians had given it the French culinary razzle-dazzle, but it took New Orleans to launch the creature into the stratosphere.


Just as it’s hard to imagine the scale of Acadia or New France, it is almost impossible to understate the importance of the city of New Orleans to the United States of America. Before the Civil War, it was the wealthiest city in the nation, and the third-most populous. It was a vital port for the country with a strategic location crucial for both national and international trade, particularly with respect to goods like cotton and sugar from the Southern states and grain from the Midwest. The port of New Orleans was one of the busiest on Earth, and the cotton exchange here was likewise one of the largest. The city, quite simply, was the major financial center for the South and the Midwest, and one of the USA’s key interfaces with the world. It probably even had good roads back then.

Things have changed quite a bit. Though the Civil War proved ruinous for much of the South, by the mid 1900s, the economy of New Orleans yet again seemed unstoppable, largely due to its port. Moreover, the discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico during that time further boosted the city’s economic prospects. New Orleans became a key player in the oil industry, with companies establishing bases here, creating jobs and fueling growth. The city was seen by many scholars as a burgeoning hub of prosperity, with the chance of one day surpassing in all aspects nearly any city in America, and most cities in the world.

Then the oil bust came. The collapse of oil prices led to a severe, immediate economic collapse. It is hard to imagine a more significant setback. It wasn’t just the oil companies. In the government sector, the subsequent end of the Space Shuttle program meant NASA would likewise no longer be an anchor in the area. Then a series of catastrophes, the worst of which was Hurricane Katrina, just proved too much for New Orleans to endure. The city never had a chance to diversify its economy or politics sufficiently to recover from the myriad disasters, whether economic or ecologic.

And yet so great is the cultural import of New Orleans that decades of consecutive calamities have not diminished its status as a true “world city” with the most distinct, specific and potent culture in North America. And that is most obvious in the culinary sphere.

From its humble Houma and Cajun origins, crawfish over the centuries found its way organically into the kitchens of the best chefs in New Orleans. Because we are a vital hub of national and international trade, the centuries have seen a mélange of cultures, ethnicities, culinary palates and strange ingredients converge in this single place on America’s map. The lowly crawfish gradually became a cornerstone of the city’s burgeoning, and eventually dominant, Creole style of cooking — itself a sophisticated blend of French, Spanish, African, Caribbean and American Indian influences.

The integration of crawfish into Creole cooking gained unstoppable momentum with the city’s economic ascent. The food landscape here over the centuries evolved specifically to celebrate local ingredients. By the 20th century, crawfish was the undisputed king of culinary New Orleans. Crawfish by then was not merely a peasant’s food for the provincial Cajuns, but rather, cosmopolitan cuisine worthy of a global audience. Today, the crustacean is intrinsic to Louisiana’s cultural identity.

Let’s face it: The four seasons in Louisiana are crawfish, hurricane, football and summer — the latter lasting 12 months, with varying degrees of intensity. (I had intended to list all the crawfish festivals in the state, but the magazine would be twice as long if I did.)

A few things helped really intensify the crawfish phenomenon. First, the cold supply chain — things like refrigerated trucks — got better at moving around a living product from a few towns in South Louisiana to the entire region. Second, people like Chef Paul Prudhomme popularized Cajun cuisine internationally like few others before, and quite frequently his star ingredient was indeed crawfish. Lastly, because New Orleans remains an important world city, people travel from around the globe and experience our favorite native insect during such events as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and, of course, Mardi Gras.

In the end, the crawfish phenomenon speaks to the best part of Louisiana culture: that we are all in it together. To make crawfish what it is today, it took nations from here and around the world; the rural and the urban; the rich and the downtrodden; and the oppressed and the wealthy. And today, we likewise all celebrate it the same way: in cardboard trays on sunny days, with friends and family and cold drinks and good spirits. Perhaps, then, the legends were right. Maybe crawfish is a magical creature after all.