Of Eels and Jesus
December 18, 2010
I can remember a friend from my Army days telling stories about how he could sometimes catch eels in his dad’s farm pond in New Jersey. I knew almost nothing about eels back then, but I was pretty sure that they didn’t breed in ponds. So, how did they get there? My friend couldn’t explain it even though this is apparently not an uncommon occurrence on the east coast. This struck me as an odd little mystery and I filed it away in my cranial cabinet for further analysis and promptly forgot all about it.
Sixteen years later, it randomly pops into my head as I’m driving to the library. Why this memory decided to surface now is highly peculiar since I’ve eaten eel on numerous occasions since then, seen them in aquariums, read science articles about them, and even looked up recipes. I would have thought the memory would have surfaced before now. Since I apparently have developed some sort of alcohol induced dementia stemming from too much partying during my wild Army days, I figure that I should probably go ahead and do a little research on eels now before some more random neuron firings dislodge the memory again.
First of all, eels really get around. Those little buggers that my friend used to unintentionally catch in his dad’s pond in New Jersey almost certainly began life 1000 miles from there, out in the middle of the North Atlantic. Strangely, freshwater North American eels spawn in great big eel orgies out in the middle of the Sargasso Sea.
The Sargasso Sea is a huge, slowly swirling area of the North Atlantic surrounded by 4 different ocean currents. It is most notable for the abundance of large mats of sargassum weed floating on it’s surface and also for the frequency of it’s use as a setting in pirate novels and Jonny Quest cartoons. Click here to learn more about the Sargasso Sea.
Anyway, once the little guys hatch, they drift around for a while and then head for shore and swim up rivers to mature in lakes and streams. Since they can breathe air as well as use their gills to extract oxygen, they can also travel short distances (up to 1/4 mile) over land, if the ground is moist, and end up in ponds and other bodies of water that are physically isolated from rivers and streams. How they know that the ponds are there in the first place is still a mystery. After maturing in freshwater for 10 to 20 years, they migrate back out to the Sargasso Sea, spawn, and die.
Some of these eels that are hatched in the Sargasso decide to go east instead; Swimming 3000 miles across the open ocean to Europe, where they are eagerly consumed by the human population in a variety of ways. The most notable (and visually offensive) recipe being that English favorite, jellied eels.
Strangely, it seems that England never really grew out of that disturbing phase of 1960s era culinary experimentation wherein foods like tuna salad and beef stroganoff would be mixed up with gelatin and left to cool in a Jell-O mold. While a jiggling slice of ham and creamed peas, or in this case, eel and veggies, might be a delectable treat for some, I’m with the rest of the world in saying “no” to this particularly peculiar provision.
Actually, the English have been serving little bowls of cold fish aspic since the mid 1700s. The dish has a loyal following of unshakable fans, particularly in London, where it is sold on the streets from carts as well as being served in pie shops, where it is usually accompanied by the more agreeable, yet unusually bland working man’s staple, pie and mash. That is, beef mince pie and mashed potatoes drowned in a green parsley gravy known as “liquor”. And they wonder why people make fun of British cuisine.
Thankfully, the rest of the world has come up with tastier recipes for this mysterious creature. The most famous preparation worldwide is probably the delicious Japanese kabayaki style of eel known as unagi. Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel and is highly popular in Japan. There are restaurants in Japan specifically dedicated to serving unagi in all of it’s forms. They even have a special “eel day” during the summer every year where everybody gets together and eats a bunch of eel. Unagi is now pretty universally recognized and can be easily found in Sushi bars and Japanese restaurants worldwide.
Besides their migratory traveling, eels are also fished and shipped all over the world. Maine is currently the only US state that is authorized to export American eels.
Caught while immature, the young eels are shipped live to China, where they are cheaply farm raised, and, in an act of incredible stupidity, we turn around and buy them back from the Chinese at 10 times the price. Seriously. American restaurants buy eel from $25 up to $300 per pound. That’s why unagi is so damned expensive in the US. But, at least it’s widely available now. The fact that I can now buy unagi in my little backwoods town is, frankly, amazing. Especially considering the fear and loathing Americans bestow on any creature that is even remotely snake-like.
Generally speaking, Americans don’t eat eel. Sure, we’ve got a growing population of people who enjoy unagi and it’s ken, but eel as a food item is mostly ignored in American cuisine. The vast majority of American diners rarely climb out of their culinary comfort zone, so you probably won’t find eel in an American supermarket or on the menu at Red Lobster any time soon. Hell, half the population here in my town probably wonders where the fish sticks are located on a fish. Maybe if I told them that Jesus ate eels they would try them? Um…what?
Yep. Jesus of Nazareth ate eels. At least…according to Leonardo da Vinci he did. The Last Supper, his famous mural, depicts grilled eel garnished with orange slices as part of the feast. This is according to art historian John Varriano in the article At Supper with Leonardo in Gastronomica magazine which discusses his findings after examining the work after a recent restoration. My untrained eyes aren’t seeing eels, but then, I’m not an art historian either.
Of course, whether or not da Vinci actually painted eels is a moot point as far as the actual last supper is concerned. Seeing as how Jesus was Jewish and all, and eels not being kosher and all, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus ever ate eels. Unless he was just fed up with all those freakin’ loaves and fishes! And the occasional fig. And wine. Also, he used to hang out with fishermen and was always standing around in rivers baptizing folks, so hey. Motive AND opportunity.
So why did da Vinci paint eels at the last supper? Well, according to Varriano, “eels were especially popular in Renaissance Italy because they could survive out of water for days and be easily transported in grass-filled baskets or, once dead, be preserved in brine.” Leonardo da Vinci would no doubt have been exposed to this popular dish and chose to use it due to it’s familiarity. Or, it could be a secret code. Somebody call Dan Brown.