In fact, such wonderful dishes have been an important dinner component for millennia. For example, eel spears, the necessary tool for their harvest, were used in ancient times, where they appeared in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Only slightly later, the early Greek gourmet Atheneus, noted for his lengthy treatise on foods and cookery, offered numerous recipes as well as several pages of discussion on the best-for-eating eel species, their farming and harvesting, and their use in religious rites. This food clearly had great importance in both culture and cuisine. In later medieval dining, they remained a favorite: “Eels in a Green Sauce” turns out to be a delicious main dish of fillets gently simmered in butter and vinegar and lots of parsley. It is safe to say that current prejudices are not of ancient origins.
For centuries – even to the 20th century – cookbooks and recipe collections continued to abound in eel possibilities. The cookbooks used in the American colonies (largely English) document their various uses, among them in sauce, fried, spitchcocked (arranged in a circle, head to tail, and roasted), broiled, and in chowders and pies. They were so commonly used in the American Northeast that in the 1830s New Englanders were nicknamed “Eels,” in the same manner as “Hoosiers” of Indiana. In any case, the general love of eels that prevailed for centuries has sadly been lost today.
The great interest in eels and eeling to antique collectors is, of course, the ubiquitous eel spear. These have been described by some experts as the best combination of beautiful form with function, a view shared by Ed and Janet Hayden, of New York, who have been collecting them for 40 years, and who recently shared their spears and their knowledge with me. Their display of over 100 spears covers three large wall areas in their living room. The assemblage is not only a kind of handsome abstraction but also a representation of national and regional variations in manufacture, origins and usage.
The collection includes several marked pieces made by blacksmiths of the Fordham family, who lived and worked on the East End of Long Island in the 19th century. They follow a fairly standard pattern shaped like a large fork but with a pointed center blade and symmetrically placed barbed tines to either side. The base of the fork held a socket into which a long wooden rod or pole was secured – it had to be long enough to reach down into the muddy stream bottom and may have been anything from 5 feet to 12 feet long. These were often locally made, and apart from their basic format, differed in size, weight, and design. They were made in different sizes according to the number of tines included – from four to eight in this case. Their distinct form is depicted in the Long Island painting “Eel Spearing in Setauket” (1845) by William Sidney Mount, the noted 19th-century genre painter of that area. And of course, the painting itself is a wonderful record of the common warm weather sea-side practice of eeling in silted-bottom, salt water bays.
Eeling was a common activity for the great majority of people living on the land and remembered with great pleasure for both the outing and the delicious, delicate flavor. Some eels remained in local waters during the cold months – they burrowed into the muddy bottoms of shallow waterways where they remained in a semi-dormant state, sitting targets for eelers. Years ago my Long Island neighbor, an elderly woman of German-American farm background, described her father eeling in his stream on a winter’s night to provide the family with a prized dinner. According to another local reminiscence, the first task was to chop a hole in the ice that was large enough to accommodate the spear and the eel it would catch. Then it was simply a matter of thrusting the spear randomly into the mud until one was caught by the tines, pulled up, slipped off and secured in a burlap bag. Quiescent eels were certainly easier to catch. The kind of eel spear for this process required fairly large barbs so that when the eel was being pulled out of the mud it would not slip off. You could continue “fishing around” this way until the area ran dry, at which time you moved some distance away, chopped a new hole, and continued as before. The distinctions between eeling during winter and summer, night and day, seem less important than the fact that the eels were in mud and needed a special design. Apart from the barbs, size was variable. The Haydens found some as tiny as four inches, socket to spear end, while others may be 16 inches or longer. Clearly the narrower the spear, the less chance there was of a direct hit; a broad mud spear with several tines had the advantage of covering more ground at once.
Other eels were spring and summer catch and followed a different logic. Some varieties wintered and bred in the warm waters of the Atlantic’s Saragasso Sea, hundreds of miles from shore. In the spring the babies, called glass eels, returned to the coast and found their way to beaches, shallow bays, rivers and streams where they matured. In a more active state, they swam the sandy or rocky bottoms of shallow waters. They were often speared from small flat-bottomed scows (like the one in Mount’s painting) but with the use of a somewhat different kind of spear. In this case there was little need for fragile barbs, as one did not have to overcome the resistance of mud. These “sand spears” had blunt tines, sometimes with delicate barbs up their length, and were tough enough to survive pounding against the rocky bottom. The tines were now often quite thick and closer together, as they worked by grabbing the eel by wedging or pinching.
Collectors of eel spears are often interested in glaives, or English versions of sand spears. They are far more massive and blockier, and their tines are strap-like, a striking comparison to the delicate and graceful mud spears. One in the Hayden collection measures twenty-four inches from tip to socket.
Eel traps are yet another means to a good meal. These were funnel-like constructions, baited to entice the eel into the main chamber but from which there was no easy-to-find outlet.
The same kinds of traps are still in use for fish, crawfish, lobsters, and crabs, incidentally.
My First Brush with Eels
Some years ago I was planning an ambitious and authentic Medieval banquet for 150 people. The menu was fairly safe—that is, the food was not too strange for modern eaters —and I thought it needed just a touch of drama. The recipes for Eels in a Green Sauce sounded like just the thing. A friend said she could get the eels—live—and I asked for around twenty small ones, figuring that only a few people would try them. She presented me with a large plastic bag of forty, all squirming and wiggling in the bag (eels can stay alive out of water for some time). Well, I had cleaned many a fish and dispatched many a chicken, and thought this should be no big deal. But I hadn’t counted on the wiggling. It was impossible to hold one still enough to chop off its head without endangering a thumb. And to make it worse, the trusty friend I could always count on decided he wanted nothing to do with The Great Eel Massacre.
So there I was, 11 P.M. and work the next day. I had to do something fast and efficient, and I resorted to the old lobster trick–a large pot of boiling water and hopefully a quick and merciful end. The first three eels I tried just didn’t like it at all, and before I could get the lid jammed on they were all over the place- behind the refrigerator and inside the stove. Murderer! But there was no choice- and forge ahead I did, gaining speed and dexterity with the pot lid. I knew that the skins could be peeled off in one piece with a pliers and a firm grip; I had the pliers but the eels were so slippery I could only hold on to them with the use of a rough towel. Within a couple of hours they were cleaned, cut, and safe in the freezer. Had it not been for the fact that the menu had been announced in advance, I might have released them in a local stream. I wasn’t sure this was something I would ever want to do again.
The upshot of the whole thing was that they were a big hit at the banquet (I did not tell the story there) and I had done some philosophizing on how we let others do our dirty work and choose not to think about it.
A few years later I was vacationing in Amsterdam, and at the outdoor markets I saw live eels for sale. Fascinated, I watched the vendors deal with the issues quickly and efficiently. What they knew, and what I learned, is that the eels should be kept in a good wooden box of sawdust. No boiling water is necessary, and no rough towels–the sawdust and a little experience make the entire process controllable.
Would I do it again? Probably not in a hurry. But I am so fond of the dish that if someone rang my doorbell and presented me with a mess of eels, I would very likely accept them.
Recipes and How-Tos
Practical Housekeeping, a publication of the Midwestern Buckeye Publishing Company (1886) discusses eels (inland), possibly spawning from the deep waters of the Great Lakes.
Eels must be dressed as soon as possible, or they lose their sweetness; cut off the head, skin them, cut them open, and scrape them free from every string. They are good except in the hottest summer months, the fat ones being best.
What they do not tell you is that the skinning requires a certain strength in the wrist and hand. You must get a firm grip with a pliers on the cut edge of the skin and, holding on to the spine with the other hand, peel down the skin like a glove. It is helpful to dust the eel with sawdust first to counteract its slippery qualities.
Eels were so beloved a tradition on Long Island that they were prepared for special festive occasions. From its inception in 1833, The Long Island Hunter’s Garden Association held its annual gathering (men only) in an open field in Quogue to partake in eel chowder, cooked over fire in huge quantities. It was very much like traditional early fish chowders without milk. According to a 1909 announcement to the members,
The following eel chowder recipe is meant to serve 130 people. Proportions are not critical, and it can be reduced to family size with little risk of failure.
Note: Dick says that earlier versions did not fry out the salt pork but simply put it into the pot with the other ingredients to boil together. He also commented that of late the Association has begun to offer both clam and eel chowders, indicating changing American styles.
The following “modern” recipe is very much like the Medieval one discussed above, and shows the enduring fondness for simple eel preparations.
This sauce was served over eel that had previously been cut and fried or perhaps simmered gently in wine.
Note: the photographs of eel spears in this article are from the collection of Ed and Janet Haydon, and are used with thanks.