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Mitch Smith/MEDILL

Dirk's Fish and Gourmet Shop sells Asian carp burgers. Conservation officials hope the carp population might be curbed if the fish catches on as a popular meal.

An invasive species for dinner

by Mitch Smith
Oct 18, 2012


Mitch Smith/MEDILL

A Medill reporter cooks an Asian carp burger.

I don’t cook.

My culinary skills are limited to boiling ravioli, microwaving leftover pizza and walking down the block to Chipotle.

But last week, curiosity led me to buy a pair of Asian carp burger patties.

Asian carp are an invasive species colonizing America’s waterways and scarring ecosystems. The Illinois River is now chock full of them, and scientists and fishermen fear what might happen if the carp penetrate Lake Michigan and choke out native species.

Past efforts to slow the carp’s spread haven’t worked. Now conservation officials have a new idea: Serving up the fish for dinner.

But the carp’s bony body scares off some seafood eaters. Its name can also provoke prejudice. Here in the Midwest, carp conjure up images of the bottom-feeder fish with a muddy flavor. The Asian carp are members of separate species with different feeding habits and a heartier taste, a pair of local fish experts told me.

The hope is that Midwesterners develop an affinity for Asian carp, spawning higher demand that would create local fishing jobs and help stall the carp’s spread. But today, it’s a niche product not sold by most grocers.

I was skeptical when I caught a cab to Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Lincoln Park to buy my dinner.

At Dirk’s, employees grind the meat into hamburger patties, mostly eliminating the bone problem. The patties looked a bit like baloney steaks. They came pre-seasoned with oregano and other spices, and the employees tossed a lemon into my bag for free. The meat was $8 a pound, and my two patties weighed a little less than that.

When I got home, I took out a frying pan and plopped a patty down. Worried that my apartment might catch on fire, I pulled up a chair to the stove in case things didn’t go as planned.

Turns out, there wasn’t much skill involved. The fish, caught on the Illinois River near Peoria, fried up nicely. I flipped the burger every couple minutes, watching the patty turn from pink to white. After a dozen minutes, I stuck a fork in the patty to see if it had cooked through. It had.

Feeling proud, I flipped the burger off the pan and onto my plate. But when I went to grab a hamburger bun, I realized I was out of pretty much everything except stale taco shells. So I chopped the patty up and improvised a Mexican dinner.

It was shockingly good, with a taste and texture about halfway between tilapia and chicken. The patties were thick, and I was full after eating just one. And, most importantly, one invasive fish was no longer in Illinois.