Carp 2.0: Mmm, they’re palatable

PHOTO: Justin Widloe, Illinois DNR, Flickr CC-BY

Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to eat pets. But there are work-arounds. For instance, you can reclassify your pet. That’s not my pet. That’s a chicken. I know I’ve been talking cute to the chicken for some time now. But it’s NOT a pet. It’s food.

Cultural taboos prevent us from eating cats and dogs. That’s arbitrary. In other places, cats and dogs are food. So are guinea pigs and rabbits. Humans evolved eating insects. People still eat insects all over the world. There’s nothing stopping you from eating bugs but you.

You can eat all kinds of things, so long as your subconscious tells you it’s OK. (Or if you are sufficiently hungry).

A lot of this has to do with labels. Escargot sounds exotic, but who wants to eat snails? Calamari sounds zesty and refreshing, but it’s just squid. Baby cows go down smoother when we call them veal. 

So, how would you like a plate of hot, steaming copi?

If you’ve never heard of copi, you’re not alone. It’s a new word for something you’ve seen before: carp. 

Silver and Bighead Carp

Silver (top) and Bighead (bottom) carp, (PHOTO: Invasive Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, Flickr CC-BY)

For the past two decades, invasive carp imported from Asia have spread up the Mississippi River. They become particularly problematic as they head further north, where their prodigious reproduction and rapacious appetites crowd out native species.

These carp leap from the water when disturbed, meaning that they aren’t just invasive species, but dangerous projectiles for passing boaters. Local, state and federal authorities spent many years and significant resources trying to repel the persistent fish, to no avail. Electrified gates, aggressive angling programs, nets and predators all failed to stop the marauding carp.

That’s why, according to a June 22 AP story by John Flesher, the state of Illinois and other partners joined forces for a new carp initiative. Instead of futile efforts to block carp, officials now tout a new plan: eat them.

Problem is, Americans don’t like to eat carp. People associate them with bottom feeding. Carp are bony, so it’s not as easy to serve up big juicy fillets. But there’s nothing wrong with carp. If you’re willing to serve ground fish, carp taste great. Like tilapia, or so we’re told. According to Flesher’s story, one gourmet restaurant in Chicago has served carp burgers, tacos and meatballs for years.

So the marketing people in Illinois did some research. If you give the carp a different name, people will eat it. That’s the logic behind their new campaign: Copi.

The name “copi” comes from the word “copious,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the amount of carp you’ll find in the rivers of Illinois. A fish by any other name is still a fish, but some names look better written in brush script on fancy menus. 

Flesher writes that there is some precedent to this. A fish once called the “slimehead” enjoyed a culinary resurgence under the name “orange roughy.” Perhaps the “carp” to “copi” transition will be just as successful.

The stately carp, with its bulging eyes just below its mouthline, represents a shining example of truth being in the eye of the beholder. A dietary staple in Asia presents as an invasive beast in America. How many more secret identities does this airborne fish maintain?

It goes to show the line between food, pests and pets runs perilously thin. After all, your friendly pet goldfish hails from the same family of fish as the invasive carp. Name your next fish “Copi.” If you get tired of cleaning the tank, call it dinner.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


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