Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Dinner Guest

“Daddy, why don’t white people eat carp?”

It was 1977 and my father and I were reclined on a riverbank, our lines in the water and hooks baited with corn.

“Dunno,” he said, taking up a bit of line slack with his reel. “The Chinese eat them. Maybe it’s an ethnic or a religious thing.”

Dad had been a carp fisherman for twenty years. He liked to catch them on a fly rod for sport, or lounge in the bankside shade, watching his young sons fight fish strong enough to pull them in the water.

“Why don’t we take one home and eat it?” I asked. We’d always just let the fish go, or occasionally we’d put several on a stringer and give them to black fishermen, who were always glad to get them.

“All right. But you have to clean it.” Dad was an avid hunter and fisherman who believed his children should understand where supermarket beef came from, and so whatever you killed, you had to clean it and eat it.

Cleaning such a tough-skinned and bony fish was no easy chore, but I managed and handed it off to mom, who added salt and baked it. We sat down to dinner. We chewed quietly.

“Dad,” I broke the silence. “I think I understand why we don’t eat carp.”

Mom made polite excuses and said that she might not know how to season it. Dad said it could be spiced to the hilt and you couldn’t escape the nasty bones. Mom wondered if black people didn’t deep fat fry it. My brother said maybe Asians liked the taste of mud. No, I argued, it was just a bottom-dweller completely unsuitable for consumption. Dad suggested we throw the fish away and go to a restaurant. We fought each other to be the first out the door.


“This is a product from our very own kolkhoz!” the hostess declared proudly, entering the room with a silver tray held high above our heads.

It was Christmas 1992 in Estonia. She placed the tray directly in front of me, the guest of honor. It was a five-kilo carp.

“You like carp, of course,” she said.

“Who doesn’t?” I managed. If there was one ironclad rule in my family it was that you never refused something offered when you’re a guest at the dinner table.

The Estonians’ mouths visibly watered. The host forked a huge serving on to my plate and then the family fought over who got the eyes.

I hadn’t expected Estonians to be carp eaters. The worst thing I’d encountered on an Estonian table was headcheese, which had an appearance and texture which could completely extinguish my appetite. Next to that on the fright index was tongue. I’d eaten it once in France, didn’t like it much there, but an Estonian had spoiled it permanently for me by removing the entire organ - including the long, more-disgusting part that runs down the cow’s throat - from a boiling pot and dropping it on my plate. I seem to recall that it writhed. Sea Devils were also frightening, but fortunately the fish was expensive enough that no one had ever served it to me. And then there were those alcohol-filled chocolates, which exploded in your mouth and liqueur ran down your chin and on to your shirt if you weren’t capable of swallowing the vile little treat in one go.

But I’m sure Estonians found some of my Canadian eating habits odd. Before I married Liina, I was able to enjoy an entire bag of Doritos-brand nacho-cheese-flavored tortilla chips at one sitting. I also liked to eat standing over the sink just to avoid getting a plate dirty. To save the work of cleaning a pan, I cooked hotdogs by letting hot water run over them in the bottom of the sink. And I was not unaccustomed to eating food directly from micro-waved bags. Cosmonaut food, as Liina calls it.

With the carp, my strategy was to eat slowly, ostensibly to savor every bite, but relying on the greed of my fellow diners to speedily consume the fish. I also dulled the taste of each bite with a mouthful of vodka, which my hosts interpreted as a positive sign. The carp on the platter quickly became only a skeleton, the others having taken seconds and thirds.

“How’s that fish? Good?” asked the hostess.

“Mmmmm,” I grunted, a thumb thrust in the air to express my approval. But these people knew no more about cooking carp than my mother, and the fish was just as muddy tasting as the one I’d tried to eat as a child.

“Well, you eat as slowly as you want,” she said, “because I’ve got another in the oven.”

Sometimes you just have to take the bullet.


Growing up in Scarborough — or Scarberia as we called it — it would be many years before I moved to the city and discovered that my mother was not in fact the best cook on earth and that the culinary traditions of my youth were not five-star.

And it would be many more years before I moved to Estonia, and even then I would never come to terms with refusing something I was offered. While it might be true that an Estonian will not take offense if you don’t eat carp, I could not have brought myself to say so at Christmas dinner in 1992. My hosts had surely gone to considerable inconvenience, if not expense, to offer me that fish, and I could not have insulted them by pushing away a plate.

It’s been years since I’ve been offered carp or bream (a rose by any another name…) in an Estonian home. The nation seems to have turned to salmon, tilapia, and even sashimi. Perhaps the carp are being exported to Russia, or perhaps they’re just finning quietly in the bottom of some muddy waterway, waiting to make a fashionable comeback.

Either way, I’m prepared for them. I’ll declare a unique devotion to another dish on the hostess' table (pasteet, for example). Or I’ll claim fish allergies. Or I’ll say it’s an ethnic, religious, or cultural thing. In fact, I’ll say, my culture requires me to go to the kitchen and eat standing over the sink.

This story recently appeared in the holiday magazine Jõulud.