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Let Them Eat Crayfish

It’s not often one solitary restaurant can help rid the world of an aggressive invader—and at the same time feed a rowdy crowd all the crayfish they can eat (or 2,200 pounds, whichever comes first) along with bottomless Hurricanes and beer.

Rusty crayfish (orconectes rusticus) have created havoc in Minnesota lakes by eating coveted walleye eggs, bullying the indigenous Minnesota-nicer crayfish and tearing out oxygen-producing vegetation that’s an important part of the lakes’ ecosystem.

Although the invasive species can be found in at least 50 Minnesota lakes, Northern Minnesota’s Woman Lake is the site of the collaboration between trappers, whose full-time job is catching walleye, and The Fish Guys, who supplied the 2,200 pounds of crayfish to Smack Shack for its second annual Crayfest.

Ron Schara, Kare 11’s “Minnesota Bound” host and active environmentalist, was the impetus behind walleye fishermen trapping the crayfish and selling them to restaurants, says Mike Higgins, owner of the fish wholesaler based in Minneapolis. Seven or eight restaurants buy the crustaceans from The Fish Guys, but Smack Shack in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood is the largest customer, he says.

Higgins can only sell the crayfish to restaurants, not grocery stores, because chefs have controlled kitchens, so the tasty pests will never be reintroduced into the ecosystem, Higgins says. The crayfish arrive at their warehouses in protective packages that are only unpacked at the restaurant, he adds.

Above: Live crayfish, just before boiling.

These bad boys of the lakes sell for $5 to $6 a pound, and it takes six to seven pounds to equal one pound of peeled tail meat. Which is why no one at Smack Shack’s Crayfest can claim to have overindulged on crayfish meat—unless they have the patience of Job and don’t mind dirty, saucy hands.

“They’re mean animals and that makes them even tastier,” says Higgins. Crayfish are sweeter than lobster because they reside in the cold, clean waters of Woman Lake, he adds. How they got to Woman Lake is a bit of a mystery. Higgins says he believes the tale they were introduced here by bass fishermen from the South using them as fish bait.

Selling the invaders as a delicacy is genius. Years ago Louisiana had its own infestation of aquatic pests: nutrias, furry, swimming rodents. The state of Louisiana challenged chefs in this culinary-rich area to come up with recipes using nutrias as protein. For some reason known only to the people who tasted nutrias in various etouffee-style dishes, it never caught on, although it did make it onto some New Orleans’ restaurants menus.

But crayfish are quite different from water rats.

This was the second year Smack Shack hosted Crayfest. The outdoor event was held on the side street off Washington Avenue on August 16, so the restaurant could stay open to “regular guests” who could sit on the patio and look down on the messy crayfish eaters below them.

Above: A tasty mix of crayfish, corn, potatoes, sausage & spices.

Under a tent where the temperatures and humidity mimicked New Orleans—the locale the crayfish are suspected of coming from—large metal pots with strainers were filled with a combination of potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage, peel-on shrimp and a healthy dousing of butter and Cajun spices. The resulting “boil” was scooped into paper baskets and the job of twisting the head off and sucking out the meat from the tail began.

There’s an art to it that not everyone seemed to master. It’s important that the tail is curled under, which means the crayfish was alive when it hit the boiling water. The reason, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is because they spoil quickly.

A band played loud music, the drinks flowed and no one left hungry—unless they passed on the potatoes and corn.

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