There’s ritualistic and sacred alchemy to the entire process of boiling crawfish. The table is the altar, the newspaper—the vestments, and the crawfish the succulent sacrifice. Boiling seasoning spices the air like incense, and the acolytes gather around the ruby red pile, imbibing their heady drinks (usually cheap and abundant beer), and preparing their part in the ritual with a gnostic mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire, Creole spices, and hot sauce.
Origins of mystery
Crawfish dipping sauce is a condiment of mysterious origin. While ubiquitous at crawfish boils around Acadiana, it’s a subject of curiosity and even derision elsewhere in the state. A cursory request for personal recipes will render many variants, most of which resemble the traditional European cocktail sauce known as Marie Rose sauce. The base is nearly always mayonnaise, pinked with ketchup in varying proportion, spiced with a Creole seasoning blend of choice, with similar discretion afforded the inclusion of the diner’s favorite hot sauce.
This element of the ritual is polarizing. If boiling crawfish is the national religion of Louisiana seafood eaters, then the presence of the sauce separates the faithful from the heretics, depending on which side you’re on. To be sure, there are moderates who straddle both camps, opting to mix a sauce for the benefit of the stray potato, corn cob, or sausage link. But many swear that the use of sauce is a cover-up for poorly seasoned crawfish.
Anthony Arceneaux, owner of the Robert’s Cove crawfish boil mecca known as Hawk’s, claims his mother is responsible for the original sin, though he may not use that terminology. The Arceneaux are innovators in the world of restaurant crawfish boils, establishing Hawk’s as one of the first successful boiled crawfish restaurants in Louisiana, as well as one of the first purveyors of purged crawfish.
Before opening Hawk’s in 1983, the Arceneaux ate crawfish as a family staple. Anthony’s little sister didn’t like the taste, so his mother whipped up a quick batch of sauce with what she had available in the fridge. The result was a proprietary mixture of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and Worcestershire that Hawk’s sells by the bucketful, making 55 gallons of the stuff weekly. Consider that Hawk’s purged crawfish is touted among the best in the world, and it erodes the notion that the sauce is only for bad crawfish or bad Cajuns.
Sauces are a staple
No matter what your position on the hot button issue, the fact remains that the sauce is an everyday presence at boils. Plenty of crawfish dabblers use it to cool the heat from especially spicy batches, and still, others keep it on hand for a flavor variety, dipping one out of every five tails or so into their sacred concoction. Like any religious practice, everyone does it a little differently, guarding their secrets closely or boastfully claiming their recipe to be the best. Store-bought brands like Wow Wee Dipping Sauce grace the shelves of stores across the South, and sales of Raising Cane’s signature dipping sauce increase during crawfish season (though they claim no immediate inspiration from the crawfish sauce phenomenon). Sauce has become big business, so love it or hate it, the sauce is gonna be on the table.