Dirt Alert

Chef Kirk Warner does what he can with the Mississippi's bounty

There's a big, mythic river in our midst, and, unfortunately, its main use in 2002 is as a place to put casinos. But believe it or not, within the Mighty Mighty Loophole and its tributaries are fish. At one time our ancestors relied on these creatures for a large portion of their sustenance. It made them strong, virile -- able to build enormous, complex mound systems and a towering Arch. It gave them the vision to concoct clean, crisp beers; the creativity to reimagine ravioli and toast it.

It was the fish, and, unlike you, some people still eat this fish.

Otis Woodard casts his line in local waters for food three or four times a week. "I'm turning 66 this year," he says, smiling, "and I eat fish once a day, every day -- and I have sixteen children. I'm very healthy; I feel very good. I eat the skin, everything."

"Day-boat bighead carp" with pork belly, kale and sweet-corn sauce
Mark Gilliland
"Day-boat bighead carp" with pork belly, kale and sweet-corn sauce

Recently Woodard and RFT restaurant critic Jill Posey-Smith and a few others attended a fish tasting at King Louie's, the heavenly Chouteau oasis that specializes in, among other dishes, inspired fish preparations.

Louie's chef Kirk Warner was presented with a challenge, which he bravely accepted: Create culinary magic with four kinds of lowly Mississippi-mud fish: channel and flathead catfish, buffalo and the mutant-looking bighead carp, which is an import from eastern China that has in the last decade infested the Mississippi and is, as far as local fishermen are concerned, the scourge of the river. But rumor has it that the bighead carp is a decent eating fish, strong and flavorful.

Warner prepared each sample two ways. First he fried each variety simply, with a bit of breading and the traditional garnishes of lemon wedges and mayonnaise-based dipping sauce. The buffalo was butterflied to remove as many of the bones as possible, and the resulting cuts resembled fried brown orchids -- but tasted like compost. Imagine, if you will, chewy, flavorless pork rinds. Warner then presented us with his examination of the buffalo, in a dish he tagged "line-caught Mississippi buffalo 'wings.'" He prepared it as though it were skate, the kite-shaped fish found all over the world. Skate, however, isn't a formless, gelatinous mass that looks as if it's melting. Buffalo is. His mano a mano with the fish was noble -- he seared it and topped it with browned butter and capers -- but the dirt, as always, prevailed.

Next we tried the two kinds of catfish, which were shockingly dissimilar. The flathead cat had the consistency of overstewed chicken. Warner was partially successful in adding some stability to the meat by wrapping it in a strong batter, but ultimately this served to accentuate the flathead's gooeyness. The channel cat was more tender, much more normal and texturally palatable. It seemed like a fish that was actually meant to eat. It was flaky and crisp and had some body to it, almost as much as salmon.

"Channel cat makes good nuggets," suggests Woodard, "good fillets, and is good to use when you've got a lot of children you want to feed en masse." But, he adds, "to get my bone satisfaction, I always eat the heads. I get a big old plate of fish heads, and I am happy."

We didn't eat the heads. Instead, Warner prepared both catfish varieties in a dish he called "Grafton bay catfish 'two kinds'": catfish with a sweet-and-sour pepper broth, baby bok choy and fried shallots. It was a great dish mired in a simple truth: You gotta get really used to this fish before you can even think about enjoying it.

The bighead carp, though, was a relative flavor explosion. It was firm and even a bit flaky, a fish that, when breaking in half in your hand, seems to makes sense as an edible thing. Lurking beneath the surface, though, were bones. They infested every bite and ruined Warner's exquisite "day-boat bighead carp," in which the fish was braised with pork belly, kale and sweet-corn sauce.

"I thought the bighead carp had the best flavor," says Warner, "but there were so many damned bones. I could have worked on it all day and I still wouldn't have been able to -- there would have been a one-inch piece of fish left after it was done."

But it's not just the bones that the PR folks are going to have to tackle if bighead carp is to thrive as an entrée; it's the appearance. The fish's head is ghastly, a horrific confusion of eyes -- which are so low on the head that the fish looks perpetually upside down. "They're ugly," says Woodard, "but it's a very good eating fish. It's like the monkfish, some of the other fish that they're so ugly that they don't let the public see that face. You can see the body, but people don't like to eat nothing that's real ugly. I brought one home, and my wife just went, 'Ugh!'"

What's the expert have to say about the experience? "Kirk's preparations were witty and astonishing," says Jill Posey-Smith, "but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anyone who hasn't grown up eating these fish would probably experience some degree of crawling skin at a carp tasting. It's not the flavor, which is mostly unremarkable, so much as the texture, which is mostly gummy, but it's not either one of those so much as the concept, which is mostly creepy. I've stood on the bank of the Mississippi. I've watched the chemically enhanced sludge flow by. When I imagine the miserable golems that must be slithering around down there, my first thought is not 'I bet there's some good eatin'!"

 
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