Washington politicians can usually get to the meat of a matter pretty quickly — whether it’s a complex political issue or the writing of a piece of proposed legislation. But when the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants is in town, the task takes a decidedly delicious turn.
The action begins promptly at 6 p.m. in the basement cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C., where the kitchen air runs thick with irresistible Cajun accents. Washingtonians enter the dining hall, roll back their sleeves and with napkins in place, get down to business.
Soon, heads start to roll and tails get pinched, and the unique flavor of Louisiana crawfish rushes over palates. The NAICC’s 13th annual Crawfish Boil on the Hill dinner is officially under way.
By the end of the two-hour event, 150 pounds of boiled crawfish, 40 pounds of crawfish tails and 30 pounds of alligator meat will have been consumed by several hundred lawmakers, staffers, aides, and USDA and EPA staff.
The crawfish boil, organized by the NAICC, is part social extravaganza, part dining experience, but either way, it helps nourish the relationship between agricultural producers and those who make the rules in Washington.
“It is not who you know in Washington that counts,” said NAICC member and Louisiana crop consultant Ray Young. “It is who knows you that makes a difference.”
“The Crawfish Boil on the Hill allows NAICC to have name recognition in D.C.,” added Roger Carter, NAICC member from Louisiana and one of the founders of the event. “Many recognize us as the ‘go to’ source for independent ideas on products, rules, and regulations involving consultants and the tools we recommend to our clients for production agriculture.”
The crawfish boil is usually held in late March to early April, depending on when Congress is in session. “There are no speeches, no program, and no agenda at the crawfish boil other than to let every attendee know that we are there if they have any questions about agriculture,” Carter said.
The crawfish boil was the brainchild of Carter and fellow NAICC member Phil Cochran of Illinois. In the spring of 1997, Carter and other NAICC board members were on Capitol Hill waiting to see Hunt Shipman, then Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran’s chief of staff.
Mindy Buchanan, one of Shipman’s office staff, walked into the waiting area and asked Carter where she could obtain crawfish for a party for another staffer who was leaving. Perhaps a bit under the spell of Washington politics, Carter asked how much she needed and when she wanted them, “not knowing at the time if I could even deliver.”
Several days later, Carter followed through on his promise, and shipped 40 pounds of crawfish from Baton Rouge to Washington, D.C. “At the time crawfish and shipping were both cheap compared to now, and it cost only about $120,” Carter said.
Within 10 days, Carter received a thank you note signed by over 40 legislative staffers. From there, the idea of an annual crawfish boil on the Hill began to take shape.
At the next NAICC executive board meeting, Carter and Cochran “talked about how arduous it was to trek from office to office around Capitol Hill, and that if we could gather some of the key folks at an event it would be much easier and give NAICC more exposure in D.C.,” Carter noted.
The Crawfish Boil on the Hill was born.
The first year, over 60 people came for dinner including legislative staffers, aides and representatives from USDA and EPA. Since then, it has grown to an annual event attended by over 200 people.
In the early years, the event was called Dads in D.C. (“dads” is a shortened form of crawdads, a term used by many Southerners for crawfish). “But many folks thought the event was about a group of fathers (dads), so the name was changed to Crawfish Boil on the Hill,” Carter said.
The crawfish are prepared by Jim Braucht, who Carter has nicknamed “de Chef.” But Braucht, a salesman for Terral Seed Co. in Ferriday, La., and an honorary member of NAICC, prefers a more humble moniker. “It’s actually more like ‘de Cook,’” he laughs. “A cook will share his recipe. A chef will not.”
On the day of the crawfish boil, Braucht arranges for the live crawfish to be delivered to the airport at 4:30 a.m., in order to make a 6 a.m. flight to Dulles Airport in Virginia. Braucht hasn’t been able to fly the crawfish into Reagan National Airport since Sept. 11, due to tightened security. So at Dulles, he rents a van and hauls the crawfish to Washington.
He’ll go through a series of checkpoints before getting the mudbugs to the kitchen. “You just don’t back a van up to the House of Representatives and start unloading seafood,” said Braucht.
There’s nearly always an adventure between the airport and the boiling pot. Once, a bomb-detection dog had a close encounter with a live crawfish when the dog stuck his nose into one of Braucht’s containers.
The menu has varied some over the years, but the primary staples are boiled crawfish, crawfish étouffée over rice, boiled corn on the cob and potatoes, cole slaw, French bread and desserts.
Dorothy Young, wife of NAICC member Ray Young, and Cheryl Braucht, Jim’s wife, help out in the kitchen.
The crawfish étouffée recipe
was obtained from Ned Darbonne (a misplaced Cajun in Mississippi) and has been the biggest hit. For the last three years, Braucht has added alligator sauce piquant to the menu.
Carter notes that “nawtherners” are frequently in need of instruction of the art of pinching tails, er, the technique used to coax a morsel of crawfish meat from its shell. Luckily, the event is attended by several avid crawfish-eating aficionados, including Louisiana natives Grady and Barbara Coburn, Denise Wright, Harold Lambert, Ray and Dorothy Young and Blaine Viator. Carter, surprisingly, is allergic to the critters.
Braucht says the NAICC “has done a wonderful job up there and have done a tremendous amount of good for the American farmer, from the Carolinas to California. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
NAICC president-elect Dennis Hattermann from Valdosta, Ga., noted that the crawfish boil is “a culmination of a day the NAICC board spends visiting legislators and government employees in other branches of government who impact agriculture.
“Our goal is to meet with them earlier in the day in a more formal setting of information exchange, and then in a more relaxed informal setting later at the crawfish boil,” Hattermann said.
NAICC executive vice president Allison Jones said the crawfish boil and brainstorming work well together. She recounts a conversation she had with veteran Washington lobbyist Macon Edwards, who at first had his doubts about the event.
“I asked his opinion about cost benefit of having this boil. He said staffers are invited to many events on and off the Hill so he couldn’t guarantee that we’d get our money’s worth. After he attended the first two crawfish boils, he told me that this was the best idea he’d ever seen.”
Carter praised the NAICC for money-raising events at the organization’s annual meeting which go to the Crawfish Boil on the Hill fund. “Ray Young has been instrumental in helping me raise the money the past years.”
This spring, in addition to the numerous USDA, EPA and congressional staffers attending, eight members of the House were present, an all-time high: Reps. Rodney Alexander, La.; Jack Kingston, Ga.; Jeff Fortenberry, Neb.; Dean Heller, Nev.; Robert Latta, Ohio; Earl Pomeroy, N.D.; Walt Minnick, Idaho; and Bob Etheridge, N.C.
Alexander and his staff are regular attendees, as is former EPA Administrator Steve Johnson.
That the dignitaries “could be attending many other similar functions with food attests to the excellence of the food prepared by Jim and the warm hospitality offered by our NAICC family,” Carter said.