Bighead Asian Carp could be big money for Illinois

Word of Illinois' campaign to create a public taste for sauteed fillets and fried fish cakes made from bighead Asian carp has reached even the distant shores of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where we are vacationing with gracious friends.

It was national news because Illinois seems to have lost its mind by asking people to, in essence, digest dirty socks. If you haven't seen pictures of bigheads, describing them as dirty socks hardly does them justice, but it's the best I can do to portray such fare in a family newspaper.
If that weren't bad enough, Illinois' first target market for the bony, disgusting bigheads are poor people, through food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries. Talk about class warfare.

Illinois has concocted such measures to deal with invading hordes of bigheads swimming up the Illinois River and threatening the ecological balance of the Great Lakes by decimating the food sources for choicer game and commercial fish. In other words, all that protein heading Chicago's way should be viewed as an opportunity.

As proof, we can turn to Maine. Think lobster. They do in Maine. Apparently all the time. Maine Lobster Tracks ice cream is sold there. So is lobster mac and cheese.

Yet while lobster is a delicacy today, it was the early 19th century equivalent of bigheads. Lobster was fit to be served only to prisoners and other lowlifes. So despised was lobster that indentured servants demanded that their contracts stipulate that they can't be fed lobster more than a couple of days a week. Lobsters, like so much flotsam and jetsam, washed up on the shores of Boston in useless piles, sometimes as much as two feet deep.

No wonder it was so unpopular; just look at those disgusting creatures. With its five pairs of legs, claws, beady eyes and curling tail, it looks much like its distant land relative, a scorpion. Who would want to eat giant scorpions, boiled alive, and dumped onto your plate whole? Whose meat is accessible only by cracking open the creature and digging past the intestines? Not me.

But in the early 1800s, someone pulled off one of the most stunning marketing triumphs of all time: selling lobster as a fashionable delicacy. Although, if you ask me, lobster is pretty tasteless without a soaking bath of garlic and butter.

A thriving lobster industry soon was annually pulling more than 100 million pounds of the crustaceans from America's shores. Lobster trapping and canning eventually became Maine's biggest business, accounting for 80 percent of the nation's lobster production. Lobster fishing rights, handed down from generation to generation, became so prized that you risked becoming lobster food by transgressing them.

I don't imagine that bigheads would become so popular that fine restaurants would serve steamed carp whole to bibbed diners. But carp once was a popular item; during the 1950s, fishermen would line the banks of the Skokie Lagoons near Northfield hoping to land dinner. Maybe they'll make a comeback, disguised as carp amandine or bighead provencale.

So, if Maine can turn lobster into big business, peddling bigheads shouldn't be a problem for Illinois, whose corrupt political system has been hoodwinking voters for years. Bighead fishing and processing could turn into a bigger economic boon than casino gambling, ethanol subsidies and O'Hare International Airport contracts combined.

Naturally, you couldn't just go out and net some carp. You'd need "approvals." Licenses. Laws enacted. Regulations imposed. In Illinois, that means graft. A bighead fishing license would become harder to get than an electrician's union card at McCormick Place. "Carpermen" (our form of lobstermen) would be directed to a politically connected insurance outfit for mandated liability coverage. The bighead industry would spawn an army of lawyers, publicists and other consultants who understand how business is done in Chicago.

Soon, alarms would be raised about the overfishing of bigheads. Federal and state environmental protection agencies would be mobilized. Interstate compacts would be negotiated and a treaty with Canada signed, detailing bighead fishing rights. The five states suing Illinois to permanently seal its waterway locks to keep bigheads out of the Great Lakes now would be suing us because we're taking more than our fair share.

Maybe we should just forget the whole thing.

This column also appeared in The Chicago Tribune.

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