Shantyboat on the Bayous

Yesterday, in my other blog, I mentioned Harlan Hubbard’s book Shantyboat on the Bayous and the fact that you could read most of it here on Google Books: If you spring to buy the book through Borders, Amazon or the University Press it will set you back $29.95 for the 141 page volume. Google doesn’t give you the whole thing but you get 120 pages. Being a pirate at heart I opted for the Google version for free.

The book is a delight. I was up until 1 a.m. this morning reading it. It’s not just that I enjoy Hubbard’s writing, but the subject was fascinating to me. I spent seven years running crewboats all over the area covered by the book 30 years after it hit the bookstores; Louisiana’s cajun country. I loved it there and in the more than a quarter century after the Hubbards passed through I doubt a whole lot had really changed. Oh, some of the towns, Barataria, Houma, LaRose may be a bit bigger, but outside of them the bayous remain the same.  I recognized the family names of the people Harlan mentions and I may, in fact, know some of the relatives of those people.

Harlan writes of the Cajun method of catching soft-shell crabs that was taught to me by an old Cajun. In order for crabs to grow they have to shed their old shells and in the few hours it takes for them to absorb and assimilate the salts in the water to create a new hard shell they are vulnerable to predation. The females are lucky. When they are about to molt they are also ready to mate and can only do so when they are “soft.” So a hard and horny male will mount her waiting for the opportune moment and he protects her from being eaten while in her vulnerable state.

But what happens when the males need to molt? They have to hide and that makes them vulnerable to the top predator in the food chain: man. What you do is cut willow branches and bundle them. Willow branches are the preferred hiding environment for the male crab. You lay these bundles along the banks of the bayou dangling into the water and then you run them a couple of times a day like a trap line. You pick the bundles out of the water and shake them into your boat. Any crabs that fall out are ready to “bust” and become the delicious delicacy of a “soft crab.” You take these crabs and put each on into a separate bucket of water and simply wait  for the crab to leave its old home. Then you cut a couple of slits on either side of the shell to remove the gills while you’re melting some butter in a cast iron skillet and chopping some garlic. Toss the garlic into the melted butter, dredge the crab in some seasoned flour and fry it up. That’s eating, cher ami.

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