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Following the carp — the fish in gefilte — from lake to plate

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 29, 2012 | 3:51 pm

Big fish, cheap fish; sport fish, gefilte fish.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, that’s a decent summary of the situation for carp today.

The fish has its share of devoted fans — some like it dead on a plate, others prefer it alive and tugging on a hook — nevertheless, by and large, carp still struggles with a bad reputation that’s as hard to shake as fish oil smell from clothes.

“I’m not a carp expert, but it’s a major ingredient for us in gefilte fish,” Paul Bensabat, one of the Manischewitz Co.’s two CEOs, told me.

“Carp, mullet, whitefish,” Bensabat said, rattling off some of the species that go into gefilte fish, a food with no particular symbolism that has long been a staple on the Sabbath and festival tables of Ashkenazi Jews, and is widely consumed every Passover. “Depending on the type of formulation you want, there’s more fish or less fish in the different styles,” he added.

The fish are shipped whole from the Great Lakes region where they’re caught to the Manischewitz factory in New Jersey, where they are processed into more than 50 different varieties of gefilte fish. The vast majority of Manischewitz-brand gefilte fish, Bensabat said, includes carp.

But even a gefilte fishmonger like Bensabat can’t deny that, broadly speaking, carp isn’t a highly regarded species.

“Carp doesn’t have a great name, for reasons that are beyond me,” he said.

That it’s cheap might have something to do with it.

“I was told that, by your family recipe of gefilte fish, you can tell how well-off people were,” Motti Polityko, the owner of Gordon’s Fish Emporium on Pico, said. “If the recipe consists primarily or solely of carp, it means you were dirt poor — and that was my family.”

Every year, around Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Polityko spends the week prior to the holiday filling orders for people making gefilte fish, and each order is slightly different from the next. Most customers buy his “classic fish mix,” made from three different types of fish (he wouldn’t say which kinds); a good number of customers want to make their gefilte fish exactly according to their grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s recipe.

“Some people will take a filet and grind it at home,” Polityko said. “Some people will not only allow me to grind it, but they will also allow me to season the fish and shape it so they can take it home and cook it. And some people want me to cook it here also, and they pick it up here already cooked. We meet them at every stage of the way.” The stock is fresh but not alive; it comes packed on ice from the Great Lakes, including German carp and Buffalo carp as well as Spiegel carp, but the last has to be special-ordered.

A tiny fraction of Gordon’s customers actually ask for the fish whole, without even a slit in its belly. Usually that’s for reasons of kashrut — Passover is a time when many Jews observe more stringent restrictions on what they will and won’t eat, after all — but there is also another time of year when Polityko sells whole carp.

“Chrismastime, I have lots of Poles, Czechs and Germans calling me for carp as well,” he said. “Guess what they call it — ‘Jewish carp.’ ”

It was a Christmas carp at a friend’s house that turned Reggie McLeod, the publisher and editor of Big River, a bimonthly lifestyle magazine that covers the upper Mississippi River, into a carp fan. He remembers how his own father always told him that carp was inedible, but now he counts the fish among his favorites.

“People are kind of crazy about these sorts of things,” McLeod said of various food prejudices. “A lot of people like shrimp and lobster — and they’re bugs.”

Some call carp ugly, but McLeod notes that koi, the very expensive and beautifully colored fish that can be found swimming in Japanese gardens around the world, are relatives of the common carp.

“It’s exactly the same fish,” McLeod said.

In 2008, McLeod started a carp-cooking contest in Big River magazine as a way of promoting carp as a fish worth eating. “We had two entries last year,” he said, “and not surprisingly, they both won — first and second prize.”

McLeod still remembers that first Christmas carp, though; it was in his friend’s basement — alive, swimming around in a tub of water.

“I said, ‘Joe, there’s a carp in your washtub,’ ” McLeod recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s Christmas dinner.’ ”

“The Carp in the Bathtub” is the title of Barbara Cohen’s 1972 children’s book, in which two children try to save a fish from meeting its fate in advance of their Passover seder. Cooks traditionally put the carp in the tub for a few days to fatten it up before cooking.

These days, for Jews in Los Angeles wanting to follow exactingly the old traditions, there is at least one store where live carp can be purchased — the Seafood Paradise Fish Market in Rosemead, which gets its stock from a farm in Northern California. According to manager Vincent Truong, almost all of Seafood Paradise’s customers are Asian or Asian-American, and most of those who buy carp are Chinese and Vietnamese.

“We usually cook it with soup,” Truong said. “It’s very tasty.”

There’s also one more way to find a live carp in Los Angeles: Grab a pole.

“Carp are in virtually every body of fresh water in Southern California,” Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish and Game told me. “They’re what’s called a non-regulated species. There’s no limit and no season — so you can catch them to your heart’s content.”

Most anglers who fish for carp don’t eat what they catch, though.

“We practice catch and release angling purely out of respect for another animal’s life along with the environment it lives in,” Wayne Boon,  director of the American Carp Society, wrote in an e-mail. Boon mostly fishes the lakes around L.A., but he said that some sections of the Los Angeles River are known to be home to carp as well.

Whether the carp in any given body of water is safe to eat is another matter. “Carp are in the middle range among game fish,” said Sherri Norris, executive director of the California Indian Environmental Alliance, a group that works to educate members of tribal communities about the dangers posed by legacy mining toxins, like mercury, that can seep into certain species of fish that live in particular areas.

In some waterways, carp is off limits to all people; in others, adult men and women beyond childbearing age may eat the fish sparingly.

“In that case,” Norris said, “you really do need to know for a fish like carp whether the body is highly contaminated or not.”

For instance, the carp in Magic Johnson Park Lake, an urban lake in South Los Angeles that is stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game with trout and catfish, should not be eaten by anyone, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Anglers, for their part, are mostly out in search of big carp to catch — and those might be the most dangerous carp to eat. Carp can live for decades, and the longer they stay in any body of water, the more pollutants they can pick up.

What’s more, the big carp are also believed to be less tasty.

“In the case of Carp, the smaller fish — up to 10 pounds — are the tastiest, so I’m told,” Boon told me.

Then again, if your carp’s ultimate destiny is to become gefilte fish, you can just douse it in horseradish.

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