I came across an interesting book the other day that answered a question I’ve pondered ever since the 50’s when I first heard my father’s story about farming carp in Kansas during the Depression. While riding freight cars through the Midwest and looking for work, Dad stopped in at a remote Kansas farmhouse to see if an odd job or two could earn him a decent meal. The leathery old farmer who answered the door set him up with what sounds today like a pretty rough deal, but back then it was a gravy job. He could sleep in the barn and get three square meals a day in exchange for cleaning out the fellow’s farm ponds. Three meals and a place to sleep made it a done deal, and Dad spent the next month wading through cattle ponds and tossing out carp with a pitchfork. Carp had taken over and the farmer had had enough. Carp-forking wasn’t easy work, the ponds were filthy and muddy and the carp weren’t babies. Many of them weighed 50 pounds and didn’t appreciate being ejected from their homes. My father headed back to the road eventually, not because of the work, but the food. At every meal, he and the old farmer ate their fill of canned carp.
Update 1/21/2013: I did try the canning method recommended by Gray, using it on bass, crappie and bream but not on carp. Only caught one carp last year and let it go (a cutie). The bream, or bluegill, were a good test, since if you panfry bluegill you have to be really careful when eating the excellent results. This fish is full of fine bones as well as bones that seem designed for nothing but discouraging things from eating bluegill, they have spurs pointing in six directions. All of it turned out good, with bones that only inspired a little bit of fear and gave way to gentle tooth pressure. — J. T. Hats
What fascinated me about this story for decades was that Dad described the carp as really good, as good as canned salmon and processed in much the same way, in chunks with the bones included. The bones themselves were soft and edible and they ate them along with the rest of the fish. The only problems were excess of quantity and lack of diversity. The farm was doing very well at producing carp, but didn’t provide much of anything else, so Dad jumped a passing freight train before carp canning season arrived and never learned the secret of turning rough fish into food.
Several times over the years I’ve tried eating carp myself, having been fooled by recipes in fishing magazines that describe it as very good, except for a few little bones you have to pick out. I’ve cooked carp in all sorts of ways, even fileted it according to expert instructions. I’ve boiled it, fried it, cut it up into cubes and dropped it in french fry oil, and I’ve never come up with any result that justified the effort. If you leave the bones in, you’d better not be really hungry because eating that fish is going to take some time. If you debone the carp, you’ve lost the majority of the fish. I’m not opposed to asking wiser people for advice, but I’ve not found anyone who qualified on the subject of cooking carp. Nearly everyone you ask tells the story of cooking carp on a pine board and then eating the board, and laughs as though that’s original. I’m tired of that story.
The secret turns out to be almost simple, not some magical ingredient only the Kansas carp farmer knew. I had always imagined it would be tricky and involve something like a stout dose of vinegar and three years of fermentation, but a free book from the Kindle library tells me it’s not that hard to do. Canning the fish softens the bones, according to Associate Professor Grace Viall Gray, Ph.D., author of the 1920 edition of Every Step in Canning — The Cold-Pack Method. Professor Gray taught home economics at Iowa State University and was apparently a very free thinker, coming up with ways to can things with the hot water bath method that today’s Extension Services won’t even discuss.
Professor Gray let me know, a few months too late to save me ten dollars, that a simple grid of wooden slats laid in the bottom of a large sauce pan will keep canning jars from breaking. Gray fearlessly described ways to preserve eggs for the winter, something all the people who bought chickens when the cost of food recently rocketed upwards will need to know. Chickens, by the way, lay so many eggs during the summer that you won’t have anywhere to put them, but when the days shorten the laying slows or stops and all the chickens do is eat three times as much as they did before. Professor Gray recommends putting back about 50 dozen eggs during the heavy laying period from March to June, for eating during the lean months of October through January. Not only that, she lists 12 different ways of doing it.
Gray held all the secrets to successfully canning fish, whether bony or not, and includes cooking timetables to ensure that bones as well as flesh emerge edible and delicious. There’s much more to the process than cutting and canning, and Gray gives many important tips that improve the texture, color and taste of the finished product. I’ve tried some of this with chicken already and find that it works. Wow! Don’t throw away those fish heads any more, because Gray also gives a recipe for fish head chowder.
There are unusual things in this book that I simply have to try, including a recipe for canned field corn that sounds delicious. Today it’s tough to even find a source of this type of information. You do, of course, follow it at your own risk and you might choose not to follow it at all. You’d be smart to follow it with the best of today’s equipment, a pressurized canner/pressure cooker, since today’s experts say that the boiling water canning method isn’t enough to ensure safety when canning low-acid foods. Gray was aware of the issue and wrote about ways to compensate with longer cooking times.
As for the wisdom of eating carp, you can get official recommendations concerning the safety of eating fish in your area from your state’s Department of Natural Resources. Here in Indiana we’re being encouraged to eat more carp because new species of Asian carp are threatening to take over the waterways. Never mind that an old species of Asian carp already has, the concern is all for the new ones. Since the common carp arrived here during the 1800’s, few Americans have been willing to taste it. If you want to try, you’ll find few restrictions on carp fishing as long as you stay away from things like explosives, poison and electrocution. In fact, in many areas you can use the pitchfork method my father learned if you only tackle rough fish like carp. You will need a fishing license, and local laws do vary.
Large fish of any species accumulate more environmental toxins in their fatty tissues than small ones do, whether they’re freshwater fish caught locally or ocean fish you buy at the market. Children and young adults shouldn’t depend on fish alone for their protein, and eating smaller fish presents less long-term health risk. I’m officially old enough now that the government says I can eat any fish I want to eat and it won’t matter, because my fate is already determined, so I’ll have a good time this year following the advice of someone who scoffed at preconceptions nearly a hundred years ago. Last year I shocked the local pharmacy by asking for Campden tablets (they showed me a box of syringes instead, for some reason) and this year I may ask them for water glass, just for fun.
Every Step in Canning — The Cold-Pack Method is available for free from the Amazon Classic Kindle library at Amazon.com. You don’t need a Kindle to view the book, but you’ll need at least the free Kindle for PC application.
Interesting Carp Information:
Axcess News: Asian Carp Invasion — Can We Fish Our Way Out of the Problem? — http://axcessnews.com/index.php/articles/show/id/22245
IN.gov: Aquatic Invasive Species — Common Carp — http://www.in.gov/dnr/files/COMMON_CARP.pdf
USDA National Agricultural Library: Asian Carp — http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatics/asiancarp.shtml