Operation Carp

Understanding the season of the fish.

It begins one Saturday afternoon in late October when the carp of southern Bohemia
are drained out of their man-made fishponds in a decidedly unsportsmanlike manner
– at least if you suscribe to the traditional fishing ethic. As the pond slowly
becomes a puddle, the big fat carp flop around above the surface. The men wade
into the mud and begin scoopnig the fish into buckets using nets mounted on long
poles. This involves strong backs, tall rubber boots, a bonfire to fight the wet,
fishy chill and copious slivovice drinking. The fish are shipped off to holding
tanks like Taliban prisoners, and, two months later, they’re taken to cities like
Prague to become a Czech Christmas dinner.

Around this time each year, the fishmongers hit the streets with their “live catches.”
Queues begin to form around the big, plastic barrels. Some customers carry plastic
bags, others carry buckets. In most cases, the carp is briskly laid out on the
chopping block, given a quick whack or two on the head, gutted, descaled, weighed
and cut into portions. In some cases, especially when there are kids in the household,
the live fish is taken home and allowed to swim a few more laps in the family

Legend has it that fish is the real authentic Christmas dinner dating from biblical
times. Czechs eat it breaded and deep-fried on the 24th. For the uninitiated,
the idea of eating this bottom-feeding fish is akin to eating a pigeon.

Carp is an acquired taste, but the real issue concerns the bones. Every year somebody
chokes on a bone in the same way that every year somebody eats a poisonous mushroom.

There are several local customs involving the fish. To wish your loved ones good
fortune and prosperity in coming year, give them a upina, or scale. To keep your
wallet full of money throughout the year, carry one in your wallet. And if Prague’s
new mayor follows “Honest Jan” Kasl’s lead, expect to see him in Old Town Square
serving carp soup to the masses on Christmas Day.

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