Saturday, December 24, 2005

Would a turkey vote for Christmas?


Well, in Poland, turkeys vote ‘Yes’ for Christmas by a landslide.

This is because Christmas dinner tables around these parts do not groan under the weight of a 10-kilogramme bird stuffed with horse chestnuts and sage. Christmas tables in Poland groan under the weight of (traditionally) twelve different dishes, the centrepiece of which is a carp.

They eat the Christmas carp in many different ways. You can bake it, steam it, fry it. You can stew it in beer and raisons, have it accompanied with a sweet and sour source, stuff it with almonds, or even have it (yum, yum!) jellied in aspic.

Not really my cup of tea, but most Poles just love the Christmas carp. Total production of farmed carp in Poland amounts to around 22,000 tons annually, most of which is consumed at this time of the year.

The best way to buy your carp (say fishy aficionados) is alive and kicking and swimming around a small tank at your local grocers. The fish is then taken home, and, quite often, kept in the bath until it has to be cooked.

The problem then comes, of course, when you have to kill the wriggling, slimy little beast. The best method, I am assured, is by a quick and accurate whack over the head with a small hammer.

But not everyone can face this most brutal of tasks. It’s the man’s job, traditionally. But not all men are man enough to get hold of a fish that is as determined to see what’s in its Christmas stocking as the rest of us, haul it out of its watery Death Row, and put an end to its misery.

So many try to find novel ways of doing the deed. Getting drunk before you have to is, understandably, one of the favourites. Another way is to not drink the vodka yourself, but give a bottle of it to the fish – that way at least the poor thing will die with a smile on its face.

I have even heard of one traumatised carp killer who decided that he was not going to bash it over the head after all, but electrocute it. This bought him more than he bargained for when. After putting a steam iron plugged into the shaving socket into the bath with the carp, the whole of the block of flats where he was living plunged into darkness.

Carp Liberation Front

But concern is growing among ecologists and fishy freedom fighters about the treatment of carp during the Christmas period. An organisation called Gaja has been organising marches in Poland in protest at, what they say, is the cruel and barbaric conditions in which the carp are reared, transported and killed. Gaja (known to their friends, possibly, as the Carp Liberation Front) have been buying up lots of these fish from supermarkets and then liberating them back into rivers.

But a carp in the bath can have positive consequences. A British man I know lives in Warsaw with his Polish wife. A few years ago they were staying with their Polish in-laws for the Christmas holiday. It was the morning of Christmas Eve when they decided to stay in bed and have a bit of yuletide rumpy-pumpy. Being a good catholic girl she used the so-called ‘natural method’ of contraception – which involves, among other things, the wife getting up after they had finished and going to wash in the bathroom to have a bit of a wash. Of course, when she got to the bathroom she was confronted by the carp swimming away merrily in the bath. But what to do? She couldn’t get in the bath with the carp – modesty forbid! So she just returned to her husband in bed, unwashed.

Nine months later a little baby girl was born.

So, as I go into the grocery stores on the run up to Christmastime I’m always looking into the large vats they have full of carp swimming around waiting for there own little private Year Zeros and I think of that little girl.

But I swear that one carp caught my eye in the shop this morning. It was trying to tell me something. It was saying that it was not looking forward to Christmas in Poland, would not have voted for it if it had been asked, and wished, just wished, that it were a turkey.

This was originally posted at the P3 blog

8 comments:

Pan Emigrant said...

It's at this time of year, when Poles around the world come to sit around the Christmas table, that my thoughts are drawn to the origins of the tradition of the humble carp.

I understand that in many countries around the world the carp is not a common feature of the menu (let alone when we're supposed to celebrate the birth of Christ). First off, it is considered a bottom-feeder, a fish that lives off the decomposing matter on the river floor - hardly a palatable diet in this age.

Secondly, it is hardly a taste sensation. The meat is laced with the taste of silt to a greater extent than any other freshwater beast I've tasted. It has a limp, turgid texture.

I've often wondered if the carp isn't merely a new, secular tradtion. Perhaps it comes from the days of the war, or in later days, when conditions hardly improved for many.

My mother claims this is not so. While Christmas is a time when Poles feast on all the finest foods the lady of the house can knock up in the preceding days, the fish has a holy place at the table - perhaps because it is the symbol of Jesus. And perhaps that's why, although nobody I've met seems certain of the real truth, we use two forks to eat fish instead of slashing the symbolic flesh with a knife.

beatroot said...

Merry Christmas Pan Emigrant...you are new the these parts!

This 'expert' on TVN24 news said that the tradition of carp eating goes back to the 18th century in Poland. And eating only fish at Wigilia wouldmake sense to the catholic tradtion, or course. The fish is also the symbol of Christ, of course...

Pan Emigrant said...

I am new to these parts, although I'm hardly new to Poland. (Probably wouldn't want to set up a blog about it, though.) Have even met you once or twice in person.

beatroot said...

I met you once or twice? Give me a clue

Pan Emigrant said...

Your clue is 'Greyhound'. (!)

beatroot said...

Aleks?

Pan Emigrant said...

That's right, Alex. Your old pal Alex... Of course it isn't Alex you prat! When you do guess, can you not use my actual name?

Shall I give you another clue?

One of our mutual friends turned another into an exhibit by wrapping him in coloured paper...

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