Consider the Eel
University of North Carolina Press ($24.95)
by Allison Slavick
Pity the poor American who shuns the eel as a savory meal or snack. Eels-both the adults, which may be fried, boiled, or smoked or prepared in a mish-mash of other regional dishes, and the immature elver stage-are enjoyed throughout Europe and Asia where two billion dollars are spent on them annually. Historically, many have weighed in on the subject: Aristotle, Juvenal, Samuel Pepys, and Thoreau all had opinions about eels. Günter Grass included eels in The Tin Drum, in a scene in which a horse's head is used as bait-eels apparently being frequently found on drowned corpses.
All eels of the American and European freshwater species originate in the Sargasso Sea, and the Japanese species begins its life similarly in the Pacific. The tiny larvae make their way on ocean currents (it takes one to three years) to freshwater rivers where they transform into the bottom-dwelling eels that you're thinking of right now. After 20 years or so they return to the ocean to mate and die. Not much more is known about the natural history of eels. Adults have never been captured in the open ocean, and though they can be raised in captivity from their larval stage, they have never mated in captivity-indeed, they have never been observed mating in the wild.
The mystery and intrigue of eels is brought to life in the non-linear, picturesque stories of Consider the Eel. A kind of eel subculture exists in the rural estuaries of North Carolina, where "watermen" (the people who fish for eels) and eel distributors wouldn't allow an eel to touch their lips, but make a tidy living from shipping live eels to Europe and Asia. We learn that in northern Spain eels are intertwined with the lives of Basque separatists, who pay upwards of $60 a serving for a tasty bowl of the transparent elvers. In northern Ireland, where elvers costs $150 a pound, a fisherman's cooperative assists the elvers in the 26-mile journey upstream by trapping them and transporting them in a live-haul tank mounted on a truck. They are released in Lough Neagh, one of the five largest lakes in Europe, and home of the tastiest eel in Europe. This tastiness is attributed to the eels's primary diet of mayflies.
Most of the people who have eels in their lives-the people who fish for them, export them, sell them at fish markets and cook them-have been doing so for decades and provide charming (but not romanticized) glimpses and friendly asides of old world concerns. Richard Schweid has written a delicious stew of images, history, biology, and natural history of an animal that most of us haven't considered. Historical recipes, a bibliography, and a helpful index complete the package.
In the U.S., eel may be found occasionally on the menu of a Chinese restaurant, in sushi or as a bouillabaisse in French restaurants. Pollution and overfishing are contributing to the demise of eel and European and Asian markets are relying more and more on U.S. exports. Try some before it's too late.