Crawfish Bisque

The crawfish (also known as a crayfish or crawdad, depending on the region) is a freshwater crustacean resembling a lobster. Frequently found in brooks and steams, the crawfish prefers to live in only the cleanest water. The greatest number and diversity of crawfish are found in south-eastern North America, where they are caught and prepared in a number of appetizing and economical ways.

But only a small portion of the crawfish is edible–usually the tail. Crawfish therefore feature frequently in soups, stews and bisques. Sometimes the claws of larger specimens can be cracked open and meat extracted; because of the larger amount of flesh they provide, these larger specimens feature frequently in dishes like low country boils, where the advice is to “suck the head; pinch the tail.”

Here is a recipe from an 1887 edition of Good Housekeeping for crawfish bisque. Use your food processor instead of the suggested mortar to save time. Serve the bisque with a crusty French bread and a green salad.

Crawfish Bisque

Take fifty crawfish, wash them in several waters, and put them in a saucepan over a brisk fire. Add to them salt, whole black pepper, and butter the size of an egg, with a little grated nutmeg. Stir with a spoon for one-half hour. When cooked, drain the crawfish, free them from the shells, and mash the meat in a mortar. Boil one cup of rice in the crawfish bouillon for a quarter of an hour, drain it and put it in the mortar with the crawfish, pounding it well. Put all back into the saucepan, thin it with the bouillon and pass it through a sieve. Mash the crawfish shells, add bouillon in which they were cooked, and strain it through a sieve into the crawfish and rice puree. It then should be of a reddish color. Put this into a saucepan over a moderate fire, not letting it boil, but it must be very hot. Put some toasted bread in the tureen, add to the broth one wineglassful of Madeira wine, and pour over toast. Serve immediately.

From the Costermonger: Eel Pie


Henry Mayhew, an English social reformer, dramatist and journalist, wrote the groundbreaking survey of the poor London Labour and the London Poor (1851), in which he recorded interviews with beggars, street urchins, costermongers, prostitutes and labourers. In his account, Mayhew supplies the reader with the minutest details about his subjects’ lives, describing their clothes, food, entertainments and how and where they lived. In the preface to the first volume of London Labour (it ran to three volumes), Mayhew writes that he hoped his work “will form, when complete, a cyclopaedia of the industry, the want, and the vice of the great Metropolis.” This undertaking is particularly “curious,” he continues, “because it is the first attempt to publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves — giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own ‘unvarnished’ language; and to portray the condition of their homes and their families by personal observation of the places, and direct communion with the individuals.”

Certainly London Labour and the London Poor is filled with fascinating details about the dour lives of the downtrodden. The book includes detailed illustrations, and the character sketches Mayhew includes vividly bring his subjects to life.

Perhaps the most intriguing section of London Labour and the London Poor discusses the lives of the costermongers — street sellers of food. The costermongers in the poorer sections of London sold a vast array of wares — potatoes, ham sandwiches, oranges and nuts, watercress, hot green peas and sheep trotters being just a few of the delicacies offered by them. But their delicacies were not as savory as they seem: Mayhew writes that the costermongers often played tricks on their customers, adulterating their wares in unsavory ways. He reports that the “more honest costermongers will throw away fish when it is unfit for consumption; less scrupulous dealers, however, only throw away what is utterly unsaleable; but none of them fling away the dead eels, though their prejudice against such dead fish prevents their indulging in eel pies.” “The dead eels,” Mayhew continues, “are mixed with the living often in the proportion of 20 lbs dead to 5 lbs alive, equal quantities of each being accounted very fair dealing.” After all, as a street fish dealer said to Mayhew, “I don’t know why dead eels should be objected to. The aristocrats don’t object to them. Nearly all fish is dead before it’s cooked and why not eels?”

 

Should you decide to make eel pie, do your guests and family a favor and ensure that your eels are fresh — despite the street fish dealer’s words of wisdom, dead eels are less than appetizing! Below is a recipe for both eel pie and fish pie, as eels are seldom found in markets nowadays. It comes from The Illustrated London Cookery Book (1852), which was a popular source of tasty and interesting dishes for the nineteenth-century cook. Use your favorite recipe for the pie crust, and make sure to use fresh herbs when seasoning the fish, which should have firm, white flesh. Add any number of vegetables to the pie — peas, carrots and onions would all prove delicious.

Eel Pie

Cut middling size eels into lengths of about three inches after skinning them. Mix together pepper, salt, a little chopped parsley, and mushrooms. Lay your fish into the dish and a few bits of butter and a little second stock and a few drops of essence of anchovies.

Fish Pie

This pie may be made of any fish salmon, pike, tench, eel, or any other. Scale your fish and cut it into pieces. Line your pie dish with a good crust. Put in the fish with a bunch of sweet herbs, a little salt, some bruised spices, and a layer of butter on the top. Put on the crust and bake for an hour and a half. When done remove the fat and put in a vegetable ragout made thus: stir a little butter and flour over the fire until a pale brown, moisten with half a pint of sherry, some soup maigre [stock], add a few mushrooms, a little salt, and a bunch of herbs. Let it boil half an hour, add the soft roes of carp parboiled, stew a quarter of an hour and then put the ragout into the pies. Any vegetable ragout may be used.

Shad: The Colonist’s Curse

With its small olive eyes stamped above a slight snubbed nose, a mouth fixed in a downward smile and a puffed opalescent belly, the shad is an unassuming fish.

But it’s also a tasty fish. Nineteenth-century epicures prized the shad’s fatty tender flesh and delicate flavor. During shad season (February to June) American fishermen thronged to rivers with scoop nets and seines, hoping to bring home their share of the popular fish. In Brooklyn great heaps of freshly-caught shad could be found piled on doorsteps, waiting for the unlucky housewife to do the malodorous business of cleaning and deboning before salting and storing the fish away.


Just a century before, however, shad was considered a positive nuisance. Farm laborers living near the Connecticut River insisted shad be served but once a week for dinner. Anything more was considered cruel and unusual treatment. Entire families felt dining on shad a shameful act: One night, while feasting on a dish of broiled shad cheaply bought, a family in Hadley, Massachusetts suddenly heard a knock at the front door. Terrified lest someone witness the ignoble and unfashionable dinner, they quickly hid the plate of half-eaten shad in a cupboard before inviting the unexpected guest in.

Shad then was fed to the hogs and the poor. In 1733, an impoverished housewife could purchase two shad for a penny — a price almost embarrassingly cheap. The fish was usually eaten baked, boiled or broiled, but never fried as it contains too much oil. Should you not feel an undue amount of shame at the prospect of preparing such a fish, try this 1856 recipe for broiled shad, which can be served with a slice of lemon and boiled potatoes.

Broiled Shad

Scale, wash and score the shad, then mix together one tablespoon of salt, and one of sugar; rub this over the fish, and let it remain for two hours; then wash it again, dry it on a towel, and season with cayenne pepper and salt. Heat the gridiron [or frying pan] and butter the bars; broil it [the fish] gradually; when one side is well browned, turn it. When done, place it on a dish; baste with butter and send to table hot.