Thursday, December 27, 2007

More on Carp

Sunday night, after enjoying dinner and drinks at our local haunt, Enid's, Jenni, Lauren, and I went to go say goodbye to the plastic tub of Carp on Nassau Avenue before we all went home to our families and they were all eaten by our neighbors.

To our surprise the scene was far more horrifying than our initial encounter. The water only reached half way up the side of the tank and the fish were all lying on their sides, with their scales peeling off, DEAD. Even worse, there were two 24-inch black eels, barely alive themselves, floating around on top of the bed of dead fish. Luckily for all the Poles who had not done their shopping in a timely fashion, the price per pound had dropped a whole dollar.


After reading a few polish message boards, it seems like there is no better explanation other than blind traditionalism. No one actually seems to like the taste of carp, although most people will conceed that farmed carp, which is fed a grain based diet, is vastly superior to wild carp, which eat mud. According to one message board expert:

Quoting: Dice
Is there any way to cook this fish so it's actually eatable?

You need to keep it in fresh water without any feeding for a couple days before the execution. That help the fish crap out all the mud it normally is plugged with.

In what may be a related tradition, the fish are always bought live and then kept in the family bathtub until Christmas Eve. Now, I can think of lots of problems that could arise from keeping mud-filled animals in your bathtub for a few days, but it seems that such questions of hygiene are not high on the list of concerns for most Poles. Instead, I found complaints of house cats ripping the beasts to shreds, and of people naming their carp and then setting them free.

Please note that we are talking about the common carp here, not the much cuter Japanese variety:

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fish, Finality: An Essay in Two Parts

Part 1 of 2: Life as it's Lived, or Do Fish Live?

On Thursday night, Maddie and I went to the New Museum with a small group of fellow ex-Grinnellians, including visiting Chicagoans, Kei and Mordecai. For reasons I need not get into here, I ended up getting quite drunk over the course of the evening, and by the time Maddie had successfully shepherded me through the maze of public transportation that separates lower Manhattan from upper Brooklyn, I was incoherent and craving apple juice. Kindly, Maddie suggested that we stop by Rachel's, the 24-hour grocery store near the intersection of Nassau and McGuinness. Approaching the store, we noticed a sign that neither of us had previously seen. It said:


And indeed, where there had once been bins of multi-hued apples and plastic grab bags of overripe vegetables now stood two long plastic troughs filled with hundreds upon hundreds of carp. The scene was terrifying. Hundreds of rubbery O-shaped mouths gaped and groped airwards, while a few utterly defeated fish lay flat and immobile on the water's surface.

“Disgusting,” I said.
“We could eat one!” Maddie replied.

This is not the first time that Maddie and I have jointly encountered large groups of creatures straddling that sometimes fin-thin-line between life and death. A few months ago, after dropping Matt Blake off at a Chinatown bus station, we took a mini-tour of the surrounding supermarkets. Here is what I wrote, after-the-fact, to a friend who often thinks about fish and who hypothesized that “fish don’t know if they’re alive or dead:”

Maddie and I stayed on, perusing weird Asian fashions at a split-level shopping mall and looking at an assortment of weird dead animals in a quintessentially disgusting Asian supermarket. Birds, fish, rabbits— all bodies with heads, all heads with eyes. Some of the fish weren't even dead and flopped listlessly in giant waterless buckets, surrounded on all sides by friends above and friends below. If only we could all be so lucky as to die on a bed of FRIENDS. Well, some dead and some thinking they were dead and some wishing it could be true and some knowing that they weren't but would soon surely be—or are those all the same categories for Their Kind?

You may already know that I have fish issues. They are somewhat complicated. I can eat fish that does not look like fish and enjoy doing so. One fish in a tank is fine. Aquariums are usually okay. However, at certain times, for reasons I’ll probably never understand, large groups of fish (schools, I suppose) make me go rigid with fear. Hordes of dead or dying fish are the worst. They symbolize, in my mind, the incoherency of experience and the ultimate pointlessness of life.

And so, it’s been a bit alarming to watch our section of Greenpoint being transformed into one large fish emporium. Beyond Rachel’s, another fish market has mysteriously opened in a once-vacant building on Nassau, and many of the other local supermarkets have upped their stock of headless fish-on-ice. Hoping that these changes might be seasonal, I googled “Polish fish Christmas,” and learned that, when cleaning the Christmas fish, one should “not throw the scales away—put them in your wallet and they will bring you wealth. Also, you may place scales in a red sack. Nail it to the door. It will bring love.” Moreover, unmarried women are advised to place raw fish beneath their chairs during Christmas supper. Afterwards, a dog is released into the room. The girl sitting above the first fish it consumes will be the first to get married.

Of course, it's a bit ridiculous to believe that these probably antiquated customs are responsible for the sudden skyrocketing in the fish population around Greenpoint. As an alternative explanation, Maddie has suggested that the Polish may have their own version of the Seven-Fish-Christmas-Feast rumored to take place in certain parts of Italy, or that many Catholics eat large amounts of fish around Christmas.

There’s a reason we call her “Smarty-tail.”

The author as fish in 2004.

Fish, Finality: An Essay in Two Parts

Part 2 of 2: In Which I Quote Some Famous People

Let’s return, though, for a moment to my morbid preoccupation with the-fish-as-memento-mori.

While visiting Chicago last summer, I spent a fair amount of time talking to Kei and Mordecai about Nintendo’s Animal Crossings. The main point of this game is to live peaceably in a virtual world of talking animals. This involves routine repetition of several commonplace tasks, such as shopping, collecting acorns, and walking through the forest. Additionally, you can capture approximately 40 different kinds of fish. Because the game plays out in real time and certain fish are intentionally elusive, one must plan one’s fishing expeditions according to weather, date, and season if one wishes a complete collection. There is also a social aspect to the game, as its title suggests, and one can converse and correspond with one’s creaturely neighbors, as well as visit their homes. After about a year of game play, Kei told me, some of her oldest neighbors had begun to exhibit bizarre behavior, slowly selling off their furniture and replacing it with fish tanks.

“All they talk about is fish,” said Kei, “No one knows why.”

If we were to ask Roland Barthes, incessant interpreter of signs and eternal pervert, about this preponderance of fish, he might respond that it is but one more indicator pointing towards the inherent emptiness of Japanese culture. This happens to be exactly what he says about fish as a subset of Japanese cuisine in Empire of Signs. Despite the fact that carp are used to represent strength and vitality in the “Tango-no-Sekko,” or annual “Boy’s Festival,” for Barthes, the “soggy, fibrous, elastic, compact, rough, slippery” fish is a purely “interstitial object.” A foodstuff comprising “the dream of a paradox,” offering nothingness as nourishment to a people devoid of central essence.

Yes, yes, yes, one might understandably argue, but fish is not nothing and, moreover, it’s delicious! Well, this protest leads to its own set of problems, as W.G. Sebald outlines in his elegantly haunting meditation on destruction, The Rings of Saturn.

In his chapter on the drastic decline of the North Sea herring population, Sebald tells of a time in the 19th Century when “untold millions of herring [rose] from the lightless depths in the spring and summer months, to spawn in coastal waters and shallows, where they [lay] one on top of another in layers.” At its peak, he tells us, the fishing industry pulled something close to 60 billion herring from the sea per year. He then contemplates whether fish can truly feel and specifically whether they feel in those crucial moments between capture and death:

Given these quantities, the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. All we know is that its internal structure is extremely intricate and consists of more than two hundred different bones and cartilages. Among the herring’s most striking external features are its powerful tail fin, the narrow head, the slightly prominent lower mandible, and its large eye, with a black pupil swimming in the silvery white iris.

Regardless of whether or not the fish feel, Sebald clearly feels for the fish. What follows the above quotation may be the loveliest and most curious passage I've read recently. This I will leave for you to discover or remember while I turn my attention to a less worthy work of fiction, namely Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

If we’re Facebook friends, you might know how passionately, viscerally, and venomously I hate this book. Though I read it months ago, thinking about it now still makes me want to throw up— not throw up due to the grotesqueness of McCarthy's imagery, but throw up out of hatred. That, however, is neither here nor there. What matters, at the moment, is how McCarthy ends his post-apocalyptic tale of the inexhaustible depths of human suffering and the futility of hope. He ends it with fish. This is the last paragraph:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

That’s the end. The fish had secrets that men ruined. The world is awful, so go die. At this point, many readers may automatically think of the famous fish ending of another epic account of disaster and despair:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plains behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Of course, it’s debatable whether the end of Eliot’s “Waste Land” marks an eternal descent into meaninglessness or sets the stage for eventual regeneration. If I could think about it rationally, I suppose that the same arguments might be made for and against optimism in The Road. But I’m not rational, remember? I look at fish and automatically see death.

For whatever it’s worth, let it be known that my 2007 ended in fish. Who knows what may follow.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ponytail Junction on Holiday

This weekend, we're all practicing a bit of escapism. Lauren's in Miami, Maddie's pretending to be Jewish, and Rachel's been living in some fantasy world called "Dawson's Creek." As for me, I'm hiding on the second floor of the gallery with the lights off imagining that I am the last person on Earth.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Smells like a tree around here!

we LOVE our tree

Jenni, visitor Matt Blake, and Rachel fall in love with a tree (well, I don't think Matt did, actually.)

Maddie's Molasses Ginger Muffins