Life Aquatic (A Brief History of Ponds and the Foods Found in Them)

Pond landscape painting ivan shiskin
Ivan Shiskin, Pond (1881)

Old pond,
a frog.

On summer weekends I swim in a nearby pond. Its water is as dark as Darjeeling tea, the hue owing to the pond’s bed of decayed leaves and organic matter cast off from the masses of trees and plants ringing its banks. The resulting sludge teems with microbes, insects, and all the other minute creatures that feed the snakes, snapping turtles, and bluegills I see as I do my lonely laps. Plants likewise feast on the nitrogen and phosphorus present, and as they grow, flower, and die, they themselves become part of the ooze. Its this virtuous cycle of rot and rebirth that makes ponds and other bodies of water throngingly alive.

And the virtuous cycle repays generously. For millennia, ponds have nourished people. Take the water lily. No mere Impressionist’s subject or frog’s perch, it may be eaten —with gusto, even. The young, tender leaves may be added to soups and stews, while the unopened buds make for a tasty morsel when battered and fried. The tastiest part of all can be found in the pond’s mucky substrate; small tubers grow along the roots and, when disturbed, rise to the water’s surface for easy picking. These tubers supposedly taste much like potatoes and are prepared in a similar way.

gnat lifecycle ponds
Images from Life in Ponds and Streams (1906)

And a pond’s farinaceous bounty doesn’t end with water lilies. Cattail roots may be roasted or milled into flour. When dried and toasted, the nut-like seeds of the pickerelweed plant make a nice addition to granola. The arrowhead plant produces toothsome corms called duck potatoes, whose appeal extends to other feathered pond dwellers. Swans eat them eagerly, as did the early nineteenth-century American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In his diary, Lewis wrote that they ate a root “round in shape, and about the size of a small Irish potato” during his and Clark’s sojourn in the Columbia River valley of the Pacific Northwest, noting that “when roasted in the embers till it becomes soft,” it had “an agreeable taste.” Indeed, Lewis deemed duck potatoes “a very good substitute for bread.”

Yet man cannot live on substitutes for bread alone. Fortunately, ponds are able to deliver a greater array of sustenance. But it does take a bit of doing on man’s part. Ponds make ideal fish corrals; their size, which is somewhat less than a lake, lends itself to better control of the number and variety of fish inhabiting them. Getting the most desirable kinds of fish to inhabit a pond proves tricky, however, because the kinds that tend to occur in them naturally are the scant-fleshed bluegill and minnow.

carp food fish ponds

A hack for stocking fatter fish was first hit upon by the Chinese some 5,000 years ago.  Among their fish ponds they’d plant stands of mulberry trees, in which they placed silkworms. The silkworms fed on the mulberry leaves, and the fish in the water below fed on the silkworms’ feces and other waste. Every so often the ponds would be dredged, and the muck removed from them would be used for shoring up dykes and fertilizing the mulberry stands. The practice was sustainable, harmonious, and bountiful, ensuring plenty of choice freshwater catch for both meals and markets. In 475 BCE, Chinese politician, businessman, writer and polymath Fan Li elaborated the details of this ingenious system in the world’s first treatise on fish farming.

planorbis carinatus ponds

The Romans followed the Chinese in the practice of keeping fishponds. Yet in their hands it sometimes went from harmonious sustainability to ever-escalating ostentation. Fishponds among the Roman elite became status symbols first and foremost. The Roman noble Palladius insisted that every villa ought to feature at least two. And they had to be every bit as opulent as the homes to which they were attached. The most elaborately engineered ponds offered the piscine inhabitants every creature comfort: drawing rooms and dining rooms and even boudoirs for finny trysts.

Politician Lucius Licinius Lucullus so coddled his fish that he had a hole tunneled through a mountain that they might have water fresh from the sea. And in summer when that water grew too warm, he had the fish gently carried to cooler, shadier ponds. (When he finally sold his celebrated fishponds, they netted 400,000 sestertii, or about $800,000 in today’s money.)

aquatic insects ponds


The practice of keeping fishponds survived beyond Rome’s fall and into the Middle Ages. Attached to upscale suburban villas no longer, however, they were joined to moats surrounding castles and manor houses. Yet the expense and fuss of maintaining them remained no less great. Fishponds continued to require the constant attention of carpenters and dykesmen and endless tinkering from men trained in pisciculture. Nevertheless, no lord would be found without one.

For one, managed ponds meant a ready supply of fish to sustain him through Lent. (Obscure doctrinal technicalities of the medieval Roman Catholic church established fish flesh as something distinct from animal flesh and therefore suitable for Lenten fasts.) And he needed quite a bit of it to sustain him through the austere season. He and his family could put away two pounds or more of fish daily, which was usually served in an acrid, peppery sauce of wine and onions, or as a pureed blancmange consisting also of rice, almond milk, sugar and ginger.

What stock from his pond the medieval lord didn’t eat he gave as presents to curry favor. With heaping piles of stinking fish members of the medieval one percent courted and cajoled each other to mutual gain. Kings gave loyal subjects a brace of bream for breeding, and bishops offered eels to ease the promotion of a favored cousin. Even the monied third estate took part. In 1346, the mayor of Leicester gave the earl of Lancaster a dozen each of pike, bream, lamprey, eel and salmon. (What favor he received in return remains unknown.)

roach fish freshwater ponds

If the peasantry, meanwhile, made use of ponds, it was to water the livestock that would end up in a lord or bishop’s belly once Lent was over. And if they dared steal perch or barbel from the royal pond death would be the punishment. It wasn’t until 19th century, with the growth of the middle class and the torturous trickling downward of wealth and leisure, that commoners could dream of fishing in ponds filled with more than cattails and lily pads.

The pond in which I swim is rich in neither edible plant life nor desirable fish. It was created some eighty years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the most popular of the American New Deal programs, for public pleasure without fee or fealty. This alone would make the pond builders of old look down their noses. I think this is one of the best uses to which a pond may be put.

Should you have access to a pond better stocked than mine, here’s a recipe for bream pie from High-Class Cookery Recipes (1885):

Two pounds of Bream.
Four Eggs (hard-boiled).
Two Shalots (chopped fine).
Two ounces of Butter.
Three ounces of Bread-crumbs.
Half a teaspoonful of Thyme and Marjoram.
One teaspoonful of Chopped Parsley.
One teaspoonful of Anchovy Sauce.
One teaspoonful of Worcester Sauce.
Cayenne Pepper. Salt.
One gill of Stock.

Cut the bream in slices. Mix the butter, breadcrumbs, shalot, and seasoning together, and make into small balls. Cut the eggs in quarters. Lay the bream in a pie-dish, and then a layer of egg and seasoning, balls, &c., and, if liked, some pieces of lobster. Cover with a crust of rough puff-paste and bake in a moderate oven one hour and a half. Mix the Worcester and anchovy sauce with the stock, and pour into the pie, after it is baked. A glass of sherry or Chablis may be added.

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