Cyprinus to You, Too
The fishy cousin to the gnu and the aardvark
July 21, 1978
I will save future biographers the trouble and here point out that my published work includes two pieces about the common carp but not one paean to the Chicago Cubs. As to why, I leave that to the biographers to explain.
My natural history of the carp can be read here.
The funny thing about the carp is, everybody thinks he’s funny. The carp is one of those animals—the gnu and the aardvark share his unhappy company—that humans find impossible to take seriously.
I have often written on the subject of the carp. It is a preoccupation my friends are too polite to criticize and too puzzled to explain. I myself haven't the faintest idea where I acquired my admiration for our much-abused scaly cousin. I flatter myself to think it the result of my sympathy for the underdog—or underfish, as the case may be. It may be simply that I enjoy a good joke as much as the next person; there are few things in life (pratfalls and the Beaux Arts Ball are two) as funny as the carp.
After a piece of mine called "Biography of the carp" appeared last summer. a friend of my father who is a devoted bass fisherman—the friend, that is—passed word down through the elder branch that. if I wanted to learn something about a real fish, he would be happy to take me bass fishing on Lake Springfield. Though generous, it was an offer l had to refuse. For one thing, l distrust bass chauvinists. For another, most bass fisherman I know seem to drive Oldsmobiles—I don't know why. For a third, bass have a very suburban aesthetic sense and can be induced to bite at any bauble you drag across its path provided it’s gaudy enough; l once got one to strike at a red plastic earring to which I’d attached a treble hook. Finally, it takes too much money to catch bass. My proletarian instincts rebel at the spectacle of bass hunters taking the field in $5,000 bass boats equipped with electronic fish finders, upholstered swivel chairs, foot-controlled electric bow motors, and the like. It seems so unsporting.
Sensible fish that he is, the carp will nibble only at something that bears a passable resemblance to food. It requires no fancy boats for his capture; while catching a bass is a triumph of technology, catching a carp is one of native cunning. He is catholic in his tastes and democratic in his choice of environments. It isn’t necessary to spend a hundred and fifty bucks on a fish finder to find a carp. Any puddle a foot deep and a yard wide likely harbors a carp or two; they are as common as relatives at a will reading. Instead of elaborate rods and reels, the typical carper needs nothing more expensive than a three-dollar rod and a Zebco reel of the kind you can buy in drugstores.
Ultimately the gap between the carp and the bass is a cultural one. A lot of Americans find there is something vaguely Third-Worldish about the carp. Its skin is yellow or brown or black, it is thought to be dirty and lazy. Its high birth rate poses unsettling ecological threats to more established species. The bass, on the other hand, is a rich man's fish, the trout of the Midwest. The bass is caught mainly for fun, by people who can afford it; the carp is often caught for food, by people who can’t.
Carp in its unadorned form is a delicacy common in working class bars and cafes but is almost unknown in higher class joints. lt is an acquired taste. The standard recipe in these parts is to put a carp and an old boot in a kettle of water, boil together for twenty-four hours, throw away the carp and eat the boot. Calvin Trillin, who writes "U.S. Journal" for ‘The New Yorker, recently observed: "There is some controversy about what the best part of the carp is, and there are, of course, a good many people who believe that there isn’t any best part of a carp." This is a bias not shared by the Europeans, who raise carp as a food crop.
As for Asians, they find the carp a delight for the eye as well as the belly and fill their garden ponds with them. So respected an animal is the carp in Japan. in fact, that the Japanese—I will resist the temptation to insert the word "even" here—named one of their professional baseball teams after him: the Osaka Carps. ●