April 13, 2007 | New Orleans

After the waters began to recede from the great flood of 1927, some refugees who had spent time at a Red Cross camp began to return to their homes in rural central Louisiana. What they saw was bleak. Water lines reached the ceiling of their damped, mildewed homes. The flood had overturned jars of cooking lard, leaving a coating of the grease on the wet walls. There were warnings about possible outbreaks of tetanus. The only food they had was what they brought back with them. Then, to make matters worse, the high waters had driven out crawfish from the ground. Their yards were filled with the scampering mudbugs.

Back then, crawfish was considered to be a lowlife food, even to people who had nothing else to eat. But returning refugees seldom have the luxury of being picky, so they reluctantly gathered the critters, tossed them in a pot of boiling water and added salt.

Folks back then didn't know about cooking the crawfish with spices and adding garlic, potatoes and corn to the boil, which was just as well because they didn't have any of that anyway. They also didn't know that crawfish would one day gain celebrity status as a Louisiana dish, nor could they imagine that "suck the heads" would become a socially acceptable phrase sold on T-shirts and posters. Certainly they had no idea that crawfish tails would eventually be imported from China just to satisfy the demands of cooks stirring up an etouffee.

At some point, the lowly crawfish went from outcast to superstar. How that happened is uncertain but here are four hunches.

1. Decline of the shrimp boil. Shrimp was once the favored subject of backyard boils. The big bang that made the shrimp boils extinct was cost – the price had gotten too high, especially as wholesalers began to truck their catch to out-of-state markets willing to pay the higher price. Yet there was still a big market of Louisianians wanting something to boil. Crawfish were plentiful and inexpensive; they became the new shrimp.

2. Taste. When done right, boiled crawfish are more flavorful than shrimp ever could be. The act of sucking the head – eventually a part of the local language – adds an extra shot of tanginess.

3. Increased exposure. By the 1970s, the Jazz and Hertiage Festival in New Orleans was beginning to draw international crowds, not only for the music but for the food, too – including heaps of bright red crawfish. As the crustaceans became more popular in the city, they won the favor of a wider audience.

4. Cajun revival. A spiraling interest in Cajun culture was prompted by Chef Paul Prudhomme, who brought the food of southern Louisiana to the world and made the world expect Cajun food to be hot and spicy. Suddenly, tour buses were parking in front of Cajun dance halls and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival began to flourish. Even Shreveport, at the opposite end of the state from Cajun country, started something called Mud Bug Madness.

That anything with the nickname "Mud" can reach such status shows that inherent star power of the crawfish – and the tide is still rising.

Reprinted with permission of the author.