Johnston called the market's phone number anyway, was automatically redirected to a cell phone of one of the owners and in a moment was delighted to have set up a time and place to pick up a load of crawfish. The Saturday before Mardi Gras, Johnston's backyard boil went off as usual -- right down to crawfish procured from his favorite spot, boiled up spicy and poured over photos of debutantes and Carnival queens on the newsprint lining his picnic tables.
With crawfish season revving up this year, a foodstuff and boiling tradition that for many is synonymous with south Louisiana culture is reasserting itself under sometimes unusual circumstances. Many neighborhood markets remain closed, some of the legendary seafood restaurants along Lake Pontchartrain have been washed away and the season's overall supply is hamstrung by storm damage and production problems out in the Cajun prairies where most crawfish are farmed. But it becomes obvious where crawfish are available in New Orleans early this season, not just from the arresting smell of a boil in progress but from the lines of people queued up to get their share as if with buckets at a well.
On Ash Wednesday, the owners of Johnston's favorite market were back in their parking lot with 400 pounds of crawfish they had boiled at a friend's unflooded market, selling it by the bag to astonished motorists who happened to cruise past.
"We hadn't missed an Ash Wednesday since we first opened and we didn't want to miss this one, but we really didn't know what to expect," says one owner, who would not give her name. "But it was awesome; everyone showed up. There was laughing, tears, everything. It really gave us the encouragement that we can rebuild here."
There are plenty of seafood markets open under much more normal circumstances, but such is the power of tradition in this city -- perhaps especially now, when all traditions seemed so imperiled for a time -- that consumers will jump through the hoops of special ordering and parking lot pick-ups to buy from their familiar sources. Crawfish purveyors taking this route to connect with their regulars are in plain view but still attempt to fly under the radar and insisted they not to be named.
"People should call their favorite markets even if they were flooded, they might be surprised," said an owner of one Mid-City purveyor.
It seems things are tough all over the crawfish industry these days, with farmers facing a disastrous year in 2005 due to alternating plagues of not enough water or much, much too much of it. Hurricane Katrina missed most crawfish-producing areas, but Hurricane Rita did plenty of damage with a deluge of water that diminished the productivity of many crawfish ponds, according to the Louisiana State University AgCenter, which tracks the local industry. But the year also saw prolonged periods of dry weather, which is bad news for the mudbug crop since rainfall helps draw crawfish from their burrows for harvesting.
"You hear a lot of old-timey people say the crawfish won't come out until they hear rainfall, and there is a lot of truth to that," says Dr. Greg Lutz, an aquaculture specialist with the LSU AgCenter.
The Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association predicts a poor harvest and a short season this year with the largest volumes becoming available around April.
"People are begging for it, but there isn't much there," says association president David Savoy. "It's going to be a seller's market with nothing to sell."
In New Orleans, some of the best established "sellers" of crawfish are conspicuously absent this year. Bruning's Restaurant -- in business since 1859 -- is down for the second time in recent history. Its Lakefront building was rendered unusable by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and its replacement building was hit hard by Katrina. Jaeger's Seafood Beer Garden suffered the same fate and remains closed. Across the 17th Street Canal, Sid-Mar's Seafood was pummeled by Katrina as well, and its location now appears to be destined for future flood-control measures from the Corps of Engineers.
Bucktown's seafood markets and restaurants further inland remain open and are selling as much crawfish as they can get their hands on -- notably the always busy Deanie's Seafood on Lake Avenue. On the West Bank, Perino's Boiling Point in Harvey has been reliably putting out heaving platters of hot boiled crawfish on its long, communal tables. Demand is such at Galley Seafood in Metairie that the supply runs dry every evening and owner Vicky Patania says the restaurant sometimes has to order from multiple suppliers to get enough.
Wherever consumers are finding crawfish this season, they're also finding much higher prices than in recent seasons thanks to the commodity-like supply-and-demand equation governing the prices. Uptown boiled seafood specialist Franky and Johnny's was recently charging $12.50 for a 2-pound portion, up from $7.95 for the same amount last year. That's pinched orders by as much as two-thirds compared to last year, says manager Cliff Smith.
"I've got the crowds, but we're just not selling as much (crawfish) because of the price," says Smith "The people who want them, want them and will pay for them, but maybe they won't order as much."