My dad, a Cajun raised on the bayou, told me he remembers when wild crayfish were so plentiful they would cover country roads during heavy rains. They were considered a pest instead of a food source. Which was the first restaurant in New Orleans to serve them and when?
Crawfish, mudbugs, crawdaddies, crayfish (not a term used here), ecrivesses — whatever you call them, they're a delicacy in south Louisiana. Native Americans were the first to munch on crawfish, but the Acadians (later called Cajuns) discovered the crustaceans when they settled in south Louisiana in the 1700s, after the British forced them to leave their homes in present-day Nova Scotia.
The first record of a commercial harvest was in 1880. By the 1950s, the crawfish trap replaced nets but unpredictable factors such as weather meant the supply was not consistent. In the late 1950s, crawfish farms were created by reflooding rice fields after harvests. There also were crawfish farms in Arkansas, California and Texas, but Louisiana remains the leading producer in the U.S.
It's difficult to say which local restaurant served crawfish first. Author Sam Irwin shares his extensive research on the topic in his book, Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean. He found a 1940 menu from Antoine's Restaurant, which offered Ecrivesses Cardinal, and says a commemorative menu from Antoine's covering 1840-200, states "Antoine was the first to serve such New Orleans culinary treasures as Chicken Creole, Crayfish Étouffée ... and then he created his own masterpieces." Irwin also found a recipe for crawfish bisque in the 1885 cookbook La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn, an eccentric author who traveled around the world and recorded his observations. Hearn's inclusion of the recipe could indicate that restaurants were cooking the dish at that time. Breaux Bridge, which bills itself as the "Crawfish Capitol of the World," had restaurants serving crawfish in the 1920s. In 1960, the town hosted the first crawfish festival, and it claims to have had the first restaurant to put crawfish etouffee on the menu.