Sunday, December 14, 2008

Carpe Diem

 id=Carp are so ugly, a colleague from Winnipeg recently told us, fishermen back home don't even bother taking the hooks out of their mouths. They just cut the lines.

Which would beg the rewrite: carpe carpium, (rather than carpe diem) or seize the carp. Or rather noli carpere carpium: don't seize the carp. (I knew my Latin would eventually come in handy).

In any case, Bratislava - Slovakia as a whole - is on the Cusp of Carp Season, what most of us would think of as Christmas. And the traditional Christmas meal - vying with Easter as the highest culinary point of the calendar - is the oh-so humble bottom-feeding carp. And potato salad.

Next week, the city (indeed, the country) will be peppered with schools of carp mongers selling the eponymous fish from portable vats, barrels or kiddie pools from sidewalks, town squares and general stores. Christmas Dinner will be selected by discerning diners and then tossed onto a scale and weighed. The Carp Man will then offer the buyer the option of clubbing to death dispatching and gutting Christmas Dinner himself or wrapping it up live for take-home. Traditionally, it's brought home live, either wrapped up in newspaper (hopefully for short treks home) or plastic bags, and then deposited into its temporary Carp Habitat (the bath tub) until Christmas Eve when it meets its destiny as Christmas Dinner.

Children, I have been told, delight in having Christmas Dinner splash about in the bath tub for several days. They feed Christmas Dinner, pet it, and frolic with it in whatever manner children and big ugly fish can frolic - although to the best of my knowledge, Christmas Dinners carp are not known for their playfulness. But who knows? Isn't it traumatic? I asked my students. You have what's almost a pet for a week or so and then thwack! - it's pass the horseradish.

Oh, but not so!

My parents used to tell me
, confessed one student, that just before Christmas, my carp had gone on vacation to Russia.
To which I wanted to respond, Vladimir, this is why you work in a call centre. Instead, another student sallied with you should have known better. No one comes back from 'a trip to' Russia alive.

To be fair (not really), carp is the Christmas Dinner of choice in not only Slovakia but also in the Czech Republic. The tradition seems to hearken from the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (although Hungarians wisely eschew carp for roast goose on Christmas Eve), but that still doesn't go far in explaining why über-oily bottom feeders are the meal du jour at Christmas. That carp is as far from being a delicacy as gastronomically possible is borne out by the fact that Slovakians will warn you not to choose too large of a carp because the really big ones are just too oily and gross. Wise words indeed.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists protest the brutality of the Christmas Carp Custom but unfortunately for the carp, no one here pays them much mind. Of course, the fact that Christmas Dinner is an especially bony meal and causes gazillions of holiday trips to the hospital nationwide on Christmas Eve should give Christmas revelers pause. But apparently, nothing says the holidays more than fishing fish bones out of your two-year old's throat.

There's a story circulating that Czech
playwright and president Václav Havel, was once "detained" by the Communists in a Prague prison back in the 1980's. Since he was a bit of a celebrity, he was given a tour of the prison he would soon be calling home, and was shown the interrogation "facilities", which included tubs where recalcitrant prisoners had been immersed to help loosen their tongues and refresh their memories. A tad concerned, Havel was reassured by his guide/guard that the bathtubs hadn't been used for interrogation purposes for some 30 years and that they were now only used by the prison personnel to keep their carp alive before Christmas.

What I have yet to figure out is where everyone bathes or showers those handful of days before Christmas while
Christmas Dinner awaits its fate in the nation's bathtubs. Of course, perhaps after having a live mud-sucking bottom-feeding carp living in the house for a handful of days, no one much notices the smell.


Snowflake said...

OMG! What a horrible place - do I have to see those poor fish when Artichoke and I get there? I'd like to avoid that if at all possible. Maybe we can just stay in Vienna??

Mačka in Slovak said...

I have been told that the Carp Men are out on the streets now although I haven't seen any yet. Perhaps we can arrange a walking tour that avoids them altogether. On the other hand, we can buy a whole bunch of them (fish not men) and release them into the Danube.

grannyP said...

When I moved to our dear Lone Star State (oh, so long ago) I was advised by a woman of great wisdom at the Sylvan Beach Pier about the care and feeding of the ubiquitous salt water catfish that seemed to be the ONLY thing that could be caught on my fishing line.

Having developed a healthy respect for the defense mechanisms of catfish in general, I was hesitant to grab it to remove it from my line to throw it back. She advised me that she never handled them. She merely beat them on the walkway of the pier until they fell of the hook and then she kicked them back into the water. As far as I know, NOBODY eats them.

Snowflake, are you familiar with this technique?