Friday, December 23, 2011


It is an Italian tradition to eat eel for Christmas eve dinner. Since Christmas eve is still part of Advent, when Catholics were supposed to give up meat, eel was the most oily and rich fish one could eat. It is sort of the meat of the sea. Salmon is perhaps similarly "beefy".  Our family always had fish for Christmas eve dinner. NPR recently had a story that said southern Italian families had seven types of seafood, and that the types did not matter but eel was central. Our family was similar, but I'd never heard of seven being important.  But we were always aware that Americans did not eat eel. We had to get it from Chicago, two hours away, and it was the only time in the year when we ate eel. It was often bought live, and we had to find some way to skin it, which is not easy, as the eel continues to wriggle. A sliced eel will even continue to move in the oven.  Enough to make anyone a vegetarian.  I've been wondering why Americans don't eat eel, and so picked up a short book entitled Consider the Eel from the library. The book has a lot of information, but I find it a bit irritating that when it talks about changes in the business on the east coast of the US, the author reports that his sources, the "eelers", are not willing to tell him the details of mergers in the business because they don't want it to appear in the book. Well, why write the book then?! One dealer, who sells 9" eels as bait for sport fishermen, explains his reluctance to talk by saying that his neighbors do not know he is in the eel business. There seems to be something distasteful about eels, but the book never explains why eel is so reviled.

It does, however, make the mystery even more surprising because it notes that eel was plentiful in the New World, and was a critically important food for the early colonists. They were taught to catch eel by the native American Tisquantum (AKA Squanto), the Patuxet man who had been kidnapped by an Englishman and taken to Europe. After nearly being sold into servitude and suffering humiliations in England, he finally managed to get back to his country only to find that his people had been wiped out by disease. He was living with the neighboring Wampoanog when he met the Pilgrims, and taught them to catch eel, plant corn, etc. He was very generous, and is considered essential to the Plymouth colony's survival (even with his help, half the colony died within the first six months).

The book makes it clear that eel were plentiful and popular as food. Even in 1880, 400,000 lbs of eel were captured commercially in Massachusetts, but about a hundred years later, in 1988, it was down to only 29,900 lbs, and in 1997, only 304 lbs were caught (p. 120). A big drop-off in consumption occurred after WWII, with only ethnics (Italians, Poles, and Irish) eating eel. The book suggests that this is due to eels being bottom feeders, so that they concentrate heavy metals and pollution. Indeed, eating fish from the Hudson River of New York was banned in 1976, especially eel, when it was discovered that the PCBs released by a GE plant had poisoned about half the eel in the river.  This still does not explain why so many Americans are grossed out by eel, though. There are many things we don't eat that don't generate the disgusted comments on websites that explain how to cook eel.

While looking up recipes for eel, I discovered this entry at the start of HowStuffWork's entry on "Why are eels slippery?":
­One of the creepie­st animals you can encounter in the water is the eel. It's a slippery, slimy creature, and it doesn't fit neatly into the water creature categories we've set ­up in our brains, which only amplifies our fear of it. Is it a snake? A fish? An unholy hybrid of both?

To anyone who has read Mary Douglas, this explains everything. Americans do not consider eel to be "clean" and edible not because it is a bottom feeder (so are crabs and lobsters, after all), but because it does not fit into a proper category. It is actually a fish, but it looks like a snake. It can even live a long time out of the water. Plus, it does not die right away and continues wriggling, adding to our fear of it, especially for those of us who are not used to killing our own food (we Americans expect that to be done by immigrants in slaughter houses, so they can remove the heads and tails of fish so we are not reminded that they are real animals!).

This still leaves the question of why there has been this shift since WWII. Surely American categories have not changed during the 20th century.  Why has this become more salient?  Why did a favorite dish of the early 19th century disappear from cookbooks of the 20th century?

1 comment:

梦里客 said...

Being raised in HK I've learned that the eel dishes are particular to the Japanese, and whenever the eels appear in Chinese dishes they usually come with a very thick sauce to cover their smell of earth. Cantonese people use to make a dish with steamed eels & black beans. It's not considered a proper dish because as u quoted u can't really tell whether the eel is a fish or a snake. I wonder if the popular Japanese 烧鳗鱼 (barbecued eel?) has raised the price of eel dishes in HK cos traditionally the eels are not considered proper ingredients in Chinese dishes. Kootyin