Carp, It’s What’s for Lunch

Richard O'Donohue trims an Asian carp fillet

It’s 10:30 in the morning and Proctor Dining Hall has been serving lunch for half an hour already.  There are maybe 40 students sitting in groups of two or three, some with their laptops open while others are talking or reading or studying their notes, highlighters at the ready.

Meanwhile Richard O’Donohue, the Proctor chef, is busy preparing an Indian dish with basmati rice, coconut, sesame seeds, currents, spices, and Asian carp. Yes, Asian carp – the same freshwater fish that has invaded the Mississippi River and other waterways of the Midwest. The same species that eats plankton, puts pressure on popular game fish like bass and walleye, grows to be 80 pounds or more, and is getting perilously close to entering the Great Lakes.

Ravenous eaters, Asian carp reportedly consume up to 40 percent of their body weight in plankton per day.  And powerful swimmers, they have become a YouTube sensation because they leap high out of the water at the slightest provocation.

O’Donohue, a Michigan native, has worked at Middlebury College since 1988, but his heart is never far from the Midwest.

“Getting the word out among our students about the Asian carp invasion is the most important thing we can do here,” O’Donohue explains. “Not enough people realize how harmful these fish are to the ecosystem, especially if they get into the Great Lakes. Every day that we serve Asian carp, more and more students become aware of the problem.”

And just how big is the problem? Ian Frazier, writing in the New Yorker, said, “The fear is that when they get in a lake or river, soon you will have nothing else…Possibly, these carp will change large parts of our national watersheds forever. We may be infected with a virus for which there is no cure.”

By purchasing hundreds of pounds of Asian carp fillets at a time – Middlebury has bought and served almost 800 pounds to date – the College has a hand in the effort to impede the progress of the fish. Because of it, O’Donohue has taken to calling Proctor “the kitchen with a cause,” and his menus refer to Asian carp as “Rock Island sole” (in a tip of the hat to the Illinois city on the Mississippi River near where the College’s carp are sourced). And while consuming a few hundred pounds of an invasive species won’t eliminate the threat, how students react to the problem, and what (if anything) they do next, could be a key to solving it.

Signs inside Proctor inform students that Asian carp have invaded the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, are attacking the ecosystem of other fresh water species, and warn that if they get into the Great Lakes, the carp could make it into the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain.

“It’s a small world,” O’Donohue remarks, “and our students get the point that what’s happening in one section of the country can have an adverse effect on another part in years to come.”

Veronica Muoio ’11 is having an early lunch with her friend Alison Holley ’11. “I think what the College is doing is really cool,” Muoio says between bites of O’Donohue’s Rock Island sole with rice and coconut. “It’s good for the environment and it’s providing jobs for people in that area, so it’s worth it for those reasons alone. Plus, it tastes really good.”

Dishing up a serving of "Rock Island sole"

A little later in the afternoon, a student loads his plate with two creations: the Indian-inspired carp, rice, and coconut dish, plus a potato, feta cheese, and carp casserole originated by chef Dawn Sumner.

The student with the loaded plate, Mutothori Mugo’12, reveals, “I grew up in Kenya where there is tons of ethnic food, and so I’ll try almost anything. The rice dish reminded me of pilau, a Swahili dish, so I definitely wanted to try that.” And what about the potato casserole? “I love my potatoes. I didn’t know what the meat was in it, but now that I know it’s Asian carp, I am enjoying my lunch even more.”

About a quarter of the students going through the line tries one of today’s two Asian carp dishes. Some, like Mugo, fill their plates, while others, like Amanda Kaminsky ’13, take a small portion just to try it.

“I know this fish is not considered a delicacy,” Kaminsky said, “but I’ve read the signs and understand what the dining hall is trying to do here and I support it. You don’t really taste the fish at all, but I do notice the little bones in it.”

It’s true, the bones in Asian carp have posed a serious challenge to the Proctor chefs. The fish is delivered fresh to the College as fillets with the heads, tails, scales, and spine removed. But the carps’ smallest bones (sometimes called pin bones) are not practical to remove, so the chefs have come up with another way to deal with the problem: they grind the fish and use it in a multitude of original meals, such as lasagna with white sauce, quiche, Italian sausage, fish tacos, stuffed cabbage, fish patties with cold sauce, and even a fruited fish loaf with dried apricots and cherries.

Whenever O’Donohue plans to serve Asian carp, he makes certain that it supplements what students normally expect from Proctor, such as pasta with meat sauce or vegetarian entrees like roasted vegetables. He doesn’t want students to boycott the College’s largest dining hall just because they don’t like Asian carp; rather, he hopes that the creativity of his chefs will encourage them to try the fish and grasp why he’s serving it.

There is another reason Dining Services is enthusiastic about serving the Asian carp, and that’s its low cost. A pound of Asian carp costs Middlebury about $2.40 per pound, which is less than half what the College generally pays for tilapia or haddock and about one-third what it costs to serve salmon.

The companies that process Asian carp, like Schafer Fisheries in Fulton, Illinois, recognize that by keeping the cost low, “they can help eliminate the obstacles to their goal of popularizing their product,” says Middlebury’s executive chef, Robert “Bo” Cleveland. In other words, if Midwest rivers are brimming with Asian carp and the fish are literally jumping out of the water into boats, then it’s in everyone’s best interest to discover new markets for the fish.

True to his Midwest roots, O’Donohue has connected with chefs up and down the Mississippi to share Asian carp recipes and stories.

“In Chicago they’re experimenting with smoking or roasting the carp whole,” he said. “And recently I heard about a restaurant that’s serving 3,000 pounds of carp a week. We know the interest is there. We know the supply is there. We just have to get the demand up and the word out that this fish can be a valuable protein source that’s worth eating.”

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