Dickie Breaux has probably told the story a thousand times. But with each retelling there remains something mysterious about the origin of crawfish étouffée. As a Breaux Bridge culinary legend, and owner of storied Cajun restaurant Café Des Amis, Breaux is often called upon as a keeper of crawfish lore. It’s tough to be an expert on something carried on almost purely by oral tradition, especially when that oral tradition has been repeated erroneously thousands upon thousands of times, like a decades-long game of recipe “telephone.”
Crawfish étouffée doesn’t come from a recipe in the way other folk staples like biscuits or shepherd’s pie do. It’s a description of a method of preparation, like roasted pork or barbecued chicken. Étouffée, translated from French, means “smothered.”
Crawfish étouffée is just crawfish that has been smothered rather than grilled, fried, braised, poached, or baked. It could just as easily be shrimp or catfish.
But smothered, in this sense, means smothered in the fashion of Cajun cooks, in particular Aline Champagne, niece of Mulate Guidry of Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant fame, and possibly the only consistent apparition in the legend. That original smothering, according to Breaux, was a simple and rich one made with crawfish tails, butter, onions, bell pepper, and crawfish “fat.” The fat, which is actually liver and not technically fat, is the ambrosia of mythological Cajun cooking.
As Mr. Breaux’s legend goes, Aline ran the Rendezvous Restaurant on the Henderson Highway outside of Breaux Bridge and served a wide selection of Cajun favorites, most notably those featuring crawfish. In the 1940s, crawfish weren’t widely eaten publically, though Breaux Bridge was later called the “Crawfish Capital of the World.”
It remains a daily staple while in season. Martin Begnaud, a banker from Lafayette, followed his nose through the swinging saloon doors into Aline’s kitchen and asked her what she was doing. “Mais, justement étouffée mes ecrivisses,” she replied. Or in English, “I am simply smothering my crawfish tails.” Mr. Begnaud tried the dish, loved it, and returned the following week with ten of his employees, each ordering crawfish étouffée. The rest, as has been said a thousand times, is history.
As time has rolled on, the story has gotten more varied in the telling, and the dish more complex in the making. Some say Aline inherited her technique from crawfish courtbouillon made at the nearby Hebert Hotel in the 1920s and adapted it to her needs and means. Today, most étouffées hover around the original four ingredient “recipe,” perhaps striving to make up for the difficult to obtain crawfish fat. Still, crawfish étouffée owns a place as one of the most iconic dishes in Louisiana food lore. And like its cousins, its legend is only growing.