CHICAGO — Minced Asian carp tacos? How about spaghetti with carp sauce?
Illinois officials hope serving the invasive species on a plate is the creative solution to two big problems: controlling the plankton-gobbling carp from entering the Great Lakes and record numbers of people facing hunger. But the idea has major obstacles, mainly overcoming people's nose-crinkling response to eating a fish that grows to 100 pounds and is able to sail out of the water — a trait spotlighted in YouTube videos.
"We are in uncharted water here," said Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud. "Why remove them and put them into a landfill when you can take them and use them for good? If we can get past the name 'carp' and the perception ... we can prove this is going to be a highly nutritious, cheap meal."
Starting Thursday, the department launches a campaign to change the fish's image and demonstrate how to work with the ultra-bony meat. Officials have enlisted Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, who's become a national advocate for the fish he calls silverfin. He plans to fry up the fish that tastes something like mahi mahi, so audience members can taste samples.
Getting carp to soup kitchens and food pantries is months off, said Tracy Smith, a director for Feeding Illinois, which supplies food banks and is helping on the project.
The idea is modeled after a state program that lets hunters donate deer meat to be ground and distributed to food pantries. But there's no system in place for netting Asian carp in large amounts and cleaning and distributing the fish. And state officials don't know the most feasible way to dole out the carp: minced or as boneless fillets, for example.
The yuck factor
While eating Asian carp isn't new — it's consumed in China and high-end restaurants, among other places — the first step to get it to the American masses is countering the yuck factor.
Illinois officials appear to have their work cut out for them; recent visitors to Our Lady of Grace Food Pantry in Chicago were skeptical. The pantry puts canned goods, meat and bread in the plastic food bags it gives out. If carp were to make its way there, workers would include it with the meat, leaving people to figure out how to cook the fish on their own.
"I wouldn't eat it," Vincent Williams, 49, an unemployed former bank worker, said with a look of disgust on his face.
"Ugh, I don't know. I might," said Christopher Cain, 25, a former moving company worker.
Asian carp were imported from China and escaped into the Mississippi River in the 1970s. They've spread across dozens of waterways, with bighead carp in dozens of states and silver carp — the other Asian species near the Great Lakes — in more than a dozen. The bighead reaches up to 4 feet long and 100 pounds, while silver carp are famous for leaping from the water when startled, at times slamming into boaters with bone-shattering force.
If Asian carp ever reached the Great Lakes — breaching electric fish barriers near Chicago — they could decimate food supplies and starve out native species, disrupting a $7 billion fishing industry.
Officials say carp are caught near the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a man-made link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River system, as part of a plan to control population, along with other precautions.
Health benefits touted
Nutritionists and food scientists tout Asian carp as low in mercury because they don't eat other fish and are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Illinois has been sending some of its carp to China, where the demand is high. This week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who is in China, sampled carp, reportedly saying it tasted like tilapia.
Anti-hunger advocates in Illinois are praising the idea of serving the carp, especially with increasing demand for food stamps. An average of 1.8 million people rely on the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program each month, according to figures from earlier this year. That's up from 1.2 million people monthly in 2006.
"It's a crisis" Smith with Feeding Illinois said. "Creative partnerships are going to be critical to getting through this."
Chef Phillip Foss was among the first to serve it in a Chicago high-end establishment. Recipes on his blog, thepickeledtongue.com, include one for "Carp-accio," which calls for cucumber and watermelon. He said it's not easy to fillet because of the bones, but everyday cooks could use its minced form as a beef substitute.
"Make a seafood bolognaise sauce that everyone will love. Then surprise them, that they actually just ate Asian carp," Foss said.
He and others point out that another now popular fish, the Chilean Sea Bass, was rebranded from its original name, Patagonian toothfish.
Turning a nuisance into a good dinner
Illinois officials aren't the first to float a humanitarian approach with carp. Late last year, Louisiana State University officials partnered with a nonprofit to make canned carp to send to Haiti, where the diet is already fish-rich and protein is scarce.
They came up with a product in a spicy tomato sauce with the consistency of canned salmon. The test batches in Haiti were a hit, said Julie Anderson, a professor with the university's agriculture center. The project is stalled, because of funding and other reasons, but Anderson hopes it's revived.
She said there were rave reviews after the canned carp was served on crackers at an office Christmas party.
"You hear about it so much on the news as a nuisance, a problem," Anderson said. "People don't associate nuisances with a good dinner."
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