As a kid, I’d often spend weekends at my cousin Antal’s place. We were the same age, but opposites. He was a troublemaking nature-child who would regularly toilet-paper people’s homes, and I was an orthodontic headgear-wearing nerdling addicted to fantasy stories about centaurs on other planets. To me, Antal was the coolest person in the known universe, even though I rarely got the invitation (or had the nerve) to join him on his more reckless outdoor adventures. “I remember Mama telling me that I had to behave when you were coming over,” he told me recently, when I asked him what he recalled of those years.
His family lived on Nuns’ Island, just off Montreal, as did my grandparents. He and I spent most of our afternoons in marathon Super Mario Bros. sessions, or skateboarding (he could ollie way higher than me), or playing ball hockey in his apartment building’s gasoline-scented underground garage. Then, at a certain point in the weekend, we’d part ways. I would hole up with his extensive collection of Mad magazines or my latest Piers Anthony paperback, and he would head out to do his thing, which often involved catching small animals and performing sadistic experiments on them. He would place lit cigarettes in frogs’ mouths to verify whether they’d keep inhaling until they exploded. He’d snag bagfuls of red-bellied garter snakes and then let them loose on the top floor of nearby apartment buildings. He once asked me to come throw rotten eggs at some neighbors’ windows, but I—being a pussy—timidly declined.
On another occasion, he convinced me to join him for a riverside expedition. Nuns’ Island is located in the Saint Lawrence River, which flows out to the Atlantic. The water is intensely polluted today, and must’ve also been when we were kids, but that didn’t prevent us from playing on its shores. I’d never really waded into the water before, though, until that Saturday afternoon.
On the way out, Antal grabbed a large kitchen pot. It was a glorious spring day; the air was fragrant with blooming flowers. We walked to the river along a path covered in fallen purple blossoms, then trekked through the field where Antal taught me how to kick puffball mushrooms so their dusty spores would ejaculate into the ether.
“Check this out,” he said, as we stepped into the water. He lifted up a rock, thrust his hand into the murkiness, and yanked it back out, holding a writhing blue armor-plated insect-demon, its back arched, antennae awhirl, pincers frantically snapping at the sky.
“What!” I yelled, falling backward onto the riverbank. I’d never seen or heard of a crayfish before, let alone handled one. The sight of the oversize bug squirming in his fingers freaked me out deeply. Antal assured me there was nothing to worry about. I refused to touch it, but agreed to hold the pot for him while he scavenged for others. As the terrifying creature scuttled about the bottom of the pot, unable to escape, Antal started lifting other rocks, searching for more prey. We could spot them under the waves, hurrying along through the shallows. “If you turn over a good stone, they’ll be there,” he said.
“And what do you do with them?” I asked, staring into the pot, hypnotized by the alien life-forms he was wresting from the mud.
“You build a fire, then toss ’em in and watch ’em turn red,” he explained matter-of-factly.
Antal’s interest in crayfish was the same he had for other things he captured: he tortured them for his own amusement. When I recently brought this story up to his present-day wife, she turned to him and said, “You really had the potential to become a serial killer, you know that?” What he actually became is a chemical engineer. And what I became is a writer who loves to eat crayfish.
Crayfish are freshwater crustaceans related to lobsters. They usually aren’t as delicate as their saltwater cousins, langoustines, but they can be even finer when prepared with care. The etymology of crayfish can be traced back to the Middle English word crevis, or crevice, as in the sort of grotty cavities they love to hang out in. The cre– became cray and the –vis became fish—despite their being more akin to amphibian cockroach-spiders than any actual fish. (In New Orleans, where crevice-dwelling mudbugs are particularly favored, the name crawfish has been in use since at least the nineteenth century.)
As Antal knew, crayfish can be found perambulating along riverbeds at certain times of year, mainly spring and late summer. If startled, they use their tails to zip backward in rapid, jerking motions. They don’t like sunshine, which is why they usually hide under rocks in the daytime. They’re more active during the night. Zoologically speaking, crayfish are decapods. Their two arms end in enlarged front claws strong enough to choke a water rat. They use these pincers to burrow into the bedrock, creating dens for themselves. Crayfish have omnidirectional eyeballs mounted on retractable stalks, as well as filament-covered antennae used as feelers. Alongside their half-dozen mouthparts (three pairs of maxillipeds, a couple of maxillae, and one set of mandibles) are three red teeth located inside their stomachs. They also have transparent, whitish blood, according to biologist T. H. Huxley. If this clear fluid is collected in a vessel, he reports in his 1879 treatise The Crayfish, “it soon forms a soft, but firm, gelatinous clot.”
Crayfish were known to early civilizations, but Western Europeans only began eating Astacus astacus in earnest during the Middle Ages. Before then, according to J.Ö. Swahn’s The Cultural History of Crayfish, “crayfish were counted among the insects, and that sort of animal nobody would put away in the mouth.” There was a widely held belief that crayfish fed upon human remains, which is not entirely unjustified, given the way some bodies used to be disposed of in rivers, and the fact that crayfish are essentially cannibalistic, bottom-feeding scavengers that will devour anything from carrion to snails (“shell and all”), to frogs, to floating detritus, to voles, to the molted husks of their compatriots’ cast-off carapaces. Male crayfish occasionally kill their wives, at which point, adds Huxley, “they descend to the lowest depths of utilitarian turpitude, and finish by eating them.” Factor in the folk remedy of cutting off a toenail clipping from someone with a fever, jamming it under a crayfish’s shell, then letting the addled critter loose into a river in order to “carry away the sickness,” and it’s easy to see how the little devils weren’t exactly considered kosher.
Bavarian monks in monasteries were among the first to vouch for crayfish edibility, having discovered this fact while searching out victuals that would be theologically acceptable for human consumption during Lent and on fast days. Buoyed by spiritual vindication, the cursed varmint gradually shed its “loathsome,” “disgusting” reputation. By the fifteenth century, they were an important part of the diets of the German aristocracy. From there, they became a hit in Scandinavia, first with the royalty, and gradually among the rest of the populace. Each August, Swedes would hold crayfish parties, or kräftskivor, a tradition that holds strong to this day. Old drinking songs called snapsvisor are sung, copious quantities of schnapps are knocked back, and each crayfish’s juices are first extracted by sucking noisily upon their freshly decapitated bodies.
Today, crayfish abound around the world. They can be found in Shanghai’s central seafood market, between the turtles and the moray eels. They are one of the treasured ingredients of French cuisine, whether in sauce Nantua or in mousse d’écrevisses au champagne. Hungarians do them “as in Zala,” tossed into salads with tarragon vinegar, paprika, grated onion, and diced Hungarian peppers. Rastas in Jamaica cook them Ital-style, in hand-ground coconut oil. You can have them grilled con mojo in fishing villages on the outskirts of Havana, and you can find them topped with pikliz in Cap-Haïtien. There are ten-pound Tasmanian crayfish; there are Mexican dwarf orange crayfish; there are even befuddled species of crayfish that live on land.
Worldwide, the most common method of preparing crayfish involves simply boiling them in seasoned water (in Louisiana, the preferred flavoring powder is Zatarain’s). Richard Olney recommends removing their intestinal tracts and frying them up alive, using a byzantine excavation method whose insensitivity rivals my cousin’s fire-roasting tactics:
“Rinse each crayfish and holding it firmly in the left hand (with a towel to avoid being pinched), tear loose, with a tiny, abrupt motion to each side, the central tail flap, or fin. Pull the tail flap gently in order to ease out the thread of intestine without breaking it…”
If you’re concerned about failure at this method resulting in furious, snapping, tail-flap-less crustaceans whose innards have not been removed at all, it is acceptable to forgo this step and prepare them as you would a lobster. A classic method is to poach them in court bouillon for around seven minutes. After shelling them, the tails can be butterflied and the gnarly, dark digestive veins removed, as with shrimp. Make a sauce from the pounded shells, heated with cream, shallots, white wine, butter, a little poaching liquid, and a dash of mustard or tomato paste—the whole pushed through a sieve once reduced. Place the crayfish on a bed of chopped lettuce and cucumber, then spoon over the sauce. Garnish with dill fronds and diced scallions. Have lemons at hand. Attain paradise.
The best meal of crayfish anywhere in the world is at Paul Bocuse’s Auberge du Pont de Collonges, on the outskirts of Lyon. The restaurant, which has barely changed in decades, is still eminently deserving of its three Michelin stars. It’s super expensive, but it isn’t that hard to book a table. “Like the Eiffel Tower,” their website explains, “we are open every day of the year without exception.”
The crayfish served chez Bocuse are those perfected by chef Fernand Point over eighty years ago at La Pyramide in Vienne. Point claimed that he always tried to make every meal “une petite merveille.” And the most merveille-ous of all his marvels was his magisterial gratin de queues d’écrevisses. From 1932, the earliest days that the Michelin Guide began listing specialties at the starred restaurants it reviewed, Point’s crayfish tails were right up there. He tinkered with the dish for years before settling on the final recipe—a method that now survives at Paul Bocuse’s Auberge.
Upon my arrival there, one spring evening last year, I found myself in a genteel home, all arched portals and chandeliers and pathways lined with bromeliads. There were busts of Bocuse in his high, white toque strewn around the rooms, and paintings of him as well. The aroma of fond de veau had permeated into the very marrow of the building’s walls. I was seated at a corner table, on a hyper-comfortable old wooden chair upholstered in studded brown leather. Several dessert carts were stationed nearby, covered in pastries of such exquisite, inconceivable finesse they seemed like so much edible lingerie. Œufs à la neige lactated syrup, swirl-coated tortes were truffled with pearls, sablés came topped with perfect white nipplets of stiff-peaked cream. There were Paris–Brest, ambassadeurs exotiques, even a kinky-haired gâteau du président, all waiting to be served with implements from some more refined era. Silver jugs of cream stood nearby, pert and ready.
In the men’s bathroom, above the row of urinals, there hung a large framed photo of Bocuse at the front and center of a group of all the best chefs and Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, each seated behind him in an upward triangle of diminishing importance. The image was a tribute to his ultimate influence upon French gastronomy, his utter domination of the field, a testament for all visiting men to gaze upon and consider as they stand there holding their flaccid penises.
I walked back to my table through the battalion of white-suited, black-bow-tied young men that swirled about. At one point, as my pencil dulled from taking notes, I inquired whether they had a sharpener somewhere. Moments later, one materialized, brought on a dainty porcelain plate decorated with images of wild hares cavorting in the woods. “For the shavings,” the garçon whispered benevolently.
I was overjoyed to see Fernand Point’s gratin d’écrevisses on the menu. The May crayfish that evening were so tender, and the sauce so exceptional, that I asked for bread to sop it up with—an action that, in the rarified world of French haute cuisine, can be considered a breach of etiquette. But I couldn’t have cared less about perceived improprieties, given the sauce’s utter perfection. I was a tourist, goddamnit, and nothing was going to inhibit my enjoyment of that unimpeachable sauce.
The maître d’ hovered nearby, gazing (nervously, I thought) at my actions. Clad in a sharp black Armani suit, he had slicked-back, black hair and gave off a knowing, in-on-it, yes-we’re-doing-something-naughty-but-aren’t-we-having-fun? vibe.
“Is it permissible to saucer here?” I inquired.
“Oui, oui, tout se fait ici aujourd’hui,” he answered, making it clear that, whatever the rules may have once been, diners today were relatively free to do as they please. He did, however, point out the “pelle à sauce” (or “sauce shovel”) that had been conscientiously set on the table for this very purpose. I tried it out, pushing some of the sauce onto my fork.
“It’s a good invention,” he pointed out, approvingly.
“Not as good as bread,” I replied.
“Well, as far as that goes, I’m not qualified to comment,” he retorted, with a genial smile.
Finishing up the sauce and reaching the bottom of the dish, I discovered that an image of Bocuse, arms crossed, had been fired into the plate. There he was, waiting for those who know best, looking on approvingly at the sauce-finishers (or plate-lickers) out there.
It happened to be someone’s birthday, and a black employee in a red jacket and gold-trimmed, boxy red fez wheeled out an old hand-cranked music box, which he started playing, carny-style. With his epaulets and tails, he seemed at first like an usher from some Edward Hopper movie theater, but then, as he turned the handle on the contraption, I realized he was dressed like an organ-grinding monkey. The whole situation was profoundly inappropriate.
As the music played on, a group of turbaned men were served poulardes en vessie, watching as their waiters sawed through the inflated balloon-like bladders, which crumpled like used condoms, revealing the wet hens within. These were artfully carved.
I’d been told that Bocuse was too frail and infirm to give any interviews. “He’s a muppet now,” one callous government employee told me. “They trot him out for special events, and he stands there with his arms crossed, saying nothing.”
But that evening, the great man himself came out to wave to diners. He strolled slowly through the room, smiling and nodding, and then, passing by my table, the closest to the kitchen, he plopped down next to me, much to everyone’s surprise, especially my own. The whole room turned around to watch as he joined me.
“I’m so tired,” he confided quietly. “I’m getting old.”
“It happens to the best of us,” I suggested compassionately.
He looked back at me with immensely kind eyes. “Il ne faut pas vieillir,” he declared. (“One must not grow old.”)
“Mais, alors il ne faut pas vivre,” I responded. (“Then one must not live.”)
He put his hand on my arm, and shook his head. “I’ve had infusions. It’s hard.” The almighty Bocuse was succumbing to the inevitable and he didn’t like it, nor was he ready to accept it.
“But you’ve led such a wonderful life,” I consoled him.
“Exceptionnelle,” he affirmed, waving his hand firmly across the table in a straight line. That didn’t mean he didn’t want it to keep going. “So,” he changed direction, “do you like Lyon?”
“Of course,” I replied. “And I loved the meal here, too. But may I ask you something?”
He shrugged. “Allez-y.”
I leaned in. “The crayfish were unbelievable—what’s the secret?”
“What?” he said, pointing at his ears. I’d been warned that he was hard of hearing. Or maybe he was holding out on me. How dare I trouble the master for the secret to his art? I hesitated for a moment, uncertain. What would Antal have done?
“What’s the secret to Fernand Point’s crayfish?” I repeated, louder.
“Ah. There’s no secret. It’s ancient recipes,” he answered, openly, sincerely. “Just ancient recipes no one remembers. Ancient like me… Mon dieu, tellement fatigué. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to sleep.” He stood up to leave, with difficulty. “Take good care of our young Canadian friend,” he told the waiters, as he teetered off into the ferns.
“Paul is like a papa to us all,” the maître d’ explained, a few minutes later, over digestifs. “He was born in this house, and he still lives here with his wife. She comes down to say hi to guests when he’s too tired.”
“He actually sleeps here?” I asked, incredulous.
He nodded. “In the same room he was born in.”
The music-box valet in the red outfit overheard our conversation and joined in. “He started here, and he wants to end here as well. He told me once that he wants to die here.”
“I understand,” I responded. “I want to die here, too.”
Coming back home after that trip, I found myself wondering whether there were still crayfish around Montreal, as there had been in my childhood. I did some research, and found that the best crayfish in Quebec are supposed to be in Lac Saint-Pierre, a couple of hours from Montreal. At times, they are so plentiful that you find them clustered on dead trees next to the riverbanks at nighttime. They perch in the darkness and can be plucked off the branches like fruit.
A fishing association there gave me the number of a local fisherman named Roger Michaud whom they said was one of the last remaining commercial crayfish fishermen on the Quebec bayou. I had no idea that there was such a thing as the Quebec bayou, but that’s where I ended up the following morning, on a small wooden barge, floating down a swampy canal with Michaud, who propelled us gently forward with a long wooden pole, gondolier-style. As we glided down the stream (set adrift on memory bliss, one might say), I thought of my cousin, of that sunny day twenty-five years earlier when Antal first introduced me to crayfish, and of so much that had happened since.
Later on, driving home with a bucketful of the gray-blue bayou crayfish, I resolved to try Fernand Point’s famous gratin d’écrevisses for myself. What can be said? Bocuse knew of what he spoke. There’s no secret; there’s just an ancient recipe. It’s not a light one, but it’s an extraordinary one. Fortunately, some people remember these things, the way some people remember the formative moments of their youth. And sometimes the two blessings get twisted together, memories becoming sensual experience, which is one of the best things of all.