The Forgotten Fish

forgotten_fish

Painting by William Sydney Mount

The muscular sea-green creature still burrows deep into our culture.

Thanksgiving is near, as is this season’s end, and on this brisk morning surface ice shatters against the hull of Jamie Kraus’s dory. Cormorants hovering over the pound net take flight as we approach with the roar of our 40-horsepower motor. Kraus has scheduled shoulder surgery for this winter, but tending these nets still takes brawn and agility.

Each spring and fall, this lanky fisherman in his 50s laboriously drives rows of wooden stakes into the bottom of Shinnecock Bay where he suspends a quarter-mile of leading nets to the shoreline. Fish seeking routes around this obstacle become trapped in the impoundment, configured much like an immense lobster pot.

“The catch is always best at new moon or rough water, but of the 30 pound-fishermen who once operated here only about seven remain,” Kraus says, as he closes the parlor entrance to corral anything within. Raising the mesh we spy a huge skate, schools of flaying white perch and, in the depths, flashes of white underbellies revealing his real quarry: a swarm of thrashing eels.

These will go for the Christmas market in Brooklyn,” Kraus says, as he hauls them aboard with a long-handled dip-net. Several squirm onto the deck, and they are as slippery to catch as, well, eels.

“Grab them between your fore- and middle fingers,” he advises, but my grip still remains tenuous. I toss the muscular sea-green creature toward the barrel holding Long Island’s piscine bounty; the writhing eel teeters on the rim, then tips inside. Every autumn, East End fishermen divert these forgotten fish from their spawning run to be served on regional tables. Sadly, this ritual is vanishing from the culinary vernacular because so many diners would rather perish than partake in the American eel.

“Fear Death,” wrote the classical Greek poet Philetaerus, “for when you are dead, you cannot then eat eels.” Archaeologists have unearthed eels’ gnawed-over remains in Paleolithic France. Aristotle chronicled them in his Natural History of 350 B.C. While the Greeks held them in high gastronomical esteem, the ancient Egyptians actually deified eels and depicted on pyramid walls these sinuous fish caught in the Nile River marshes. In the New World, our Pilgrim ancestors waded in Plymouth Bay to supplement their meager larder with this familiar fish.

On Long Island, land purchases from local tribes included eel spears. Native son Walt Whitman wrote of his “eel-basket and eel-spear” as well, and in 1939 J. George Frederick exclaimed in his Long Island Seafood Cookbook, that “the true seafood lover… will not have the familiar subjective distaste for the eel because it is shaped like a snake.” On East End tables, they were relished in soups and stews, fried, grilled, boiled, broiled and smoked for
breakfast, lunch and dinner fare.

In many culinary cultures, that passion remains; author Richard Schweid in Consider the Eel, described the modern Japanese fervor for unagi as nothing less than “totemic,” either for sushi garnish or to embellish beds of rice. In London, jellied eels or a hearty pie form a Cockney repast, but Americans hardly share that love of Europeans
and Asians-—many here who relish sea urchin or blowfish dismiss eels as mere fish bait! That prejudice stems not from its firm, white flesh or its delicate flavor that complements subtle sauces, rustic grilling or smoking, but from its serpentine appearance.

My wife, of Italian ancestry, finds them absolutely repulsive, but her Brooklyn aunt religiously prepares capitone at Christmas time or as an integral part of Easter’s pranza de Natale tradition. Kraus sustains his family by catching them, but “my kids won’t touch eel, although at Christmas time I enjoy them smoked,” he says. As for his wife, Peggy, she states, “I have never eaten eel and never plan to. They are slimy, but for us they mean money.”

If so many Americans disdain Anguilla rostrata they can at least admire its tenacity; eels are catadromous fish—meaning that they live in fresh water and spawn in the salty mid-Atlantic—in contrast to alewives or shad who choose to do their living and spawning in the opposite medium. Sigmund Freud defined the id and ego, but as a student at the Austrian research station in Trieste he failed to find eels’ gonads to solve the mystery of their reproduction. Disappointment prompted him to spurn biology and pursue instead psychoanalysis, but centuries before, Pliny the Elder alleged that reproduction occurred by rubbing against rocks. In Medieval times, popular belief held that eels generated spontaneously from horsehair, springtime dews or base mud. Not until 1934 did Danish biologist Johannes Schmidt, after an 18-year quest, discover the first eel larvae in the Sargasso Sea east of Bermuda.

After hatching, these tiny, translucent leptocephali drift with the oceanic currents to North America and Europe. Though the size of fingernails and leaf-like in appearance, they have powerful olfactories that can smell one part per 19 trillion. Scientists speculate that elvers, as the next growth stage is called, select the most pristine and fertile bodies of water to settle. Smaller males remain in tidal zones, but those tiny streamlined scales coated with mucus allow
the migrating females to squirm overland, climb dams and squeeze through pipes. After settling into inlets, ponds and lakes as close as Long Island or far away as Iowa, they feed on crabs, carrion, crayfish, insects and other aquatic critters until the seasonal cold forces them to burrow into the mud for their winter quiescence.

Their voracious appetite results in body-fat ratios of 30 percent, perfect for smoking, which is how Northern Europeans enjoy them most. Few Long Islanders are more accomplished than bayman Cory Weyant. The Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife and Cultural Heritage project has chronicled his expertise, but, unlike Kraus’s pound nets, Weyant traps eels in buoyed baited pots that he builds and mends all winter to set in the spring.

“The season depends on water temperatures, but normally spans six weeks around Mother’s Day,” he explains. “Then the bluefish and stripers move inshore and they love to eat eels as much as I do.”

Weyant has painted a lighthouse on the doors of his smoker, where eels are suspended over smoldering woodchips for six to eight hours. “Smoking,” he explains, “is a two-day process. First I clean, skin and brine the eels overnight in brown sugar, salt and vinegar. The next morning I start a charcoal fire in the smoker, then add damp apple, peach or cherry chips.

“The trick,” he states, “is to never let the temperature get above 160 degrees. You know,” Weyant jokes, “the eels always go into the smoker looking sad, but come out smiling.” Local German and Polish immigrants remain Weyant’s best customers for the eels he distributes locally. At the North Fork’s Southold Fish Market, however, Charlie Manwaring sees the demand ebbing. “My grandfather still fishes for eels,” Manwaring explains, “and we offer them seasonally. When fishermen deliver their catch I skin and clean them for sale either smoked, fresh or simply floured and deep-fried on our take-out menus, which is still my favorite way to eat eels. Some days,” he says, “we might sell 40 orders and other days none. I’m of Polish ancestry and, at Christmas, we ate them by the plateful, but, at the market, the older Polish people who were the biggest customers are dying off. Although we still smoke, the licensing restrictions have made it more of a hassle since now smokers can only be stainless steel.

“Eels,” Manwaring laments, “are becoming less and less of a tradition when most Americans’ idea of fresh seafood is a McDonald’s fish sandwich.”

Mike Checklick, a salesman at Braun’s Fish Market in Cutchogue agrees. “We still sell lots of smoked eels at Christmastime. But those customers who appreciate them are passing on, and there isn’t much restaurant demand anymore either,” although Christian Mir of the Stone Creek Inn in Hampton Bays still offers it on his menu. “I love
eel, but it’s a hard sell,” says Mir, a native of Toulouse, France. “People seem to either love it or hate it. I have a smoker, and serve eel over salad greens or fried fresh like a tempura for adventurous diners, but if we sell 10 portions among 100 customers that’s a good night.”

Seventy years ago author J. George Frederick predicted that “The Long Island eel…is destined to achieve a wider place in the American diet.” His optimism, however, was sadly misplaced and its gastronomic future is endangered. Eel recipes were included in America’s first cookbooks, including Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, published in 1796. They were also the inspiration for art, such as William Sidney Mount’s 1845 painting Eel Spearing at Setauket
(currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibit “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915”), and other Long Islanders have found them sources of poetry: “Get ready your knives says, Unkel Frank/ And give those fins a powerful yank,/ for the pork is frying in the pots/ Chowder’s always good at Brewster’s Lots/ Eels aplenty and some to spare/ try to come and enjoy your share,” went a 19th-century verse when eels were the main course of communal celebrations. Even winter did not deter the pursuit; holes were chopped in the ice for fishermen to thrust their spears into the mud after their dormant and delectable quarry.

Today, those hand-wrought iron spears have become collectable works of art, but eel populations are also harbingers of environmental change—or perhaps degradation. Kraus has observed that “winter flounder, eelgrass and sea lettuce are just about gone from Hampton Bays,” but Weyant feels that “you have good years and bad years.” DEC biologist Carol Hoffman says, “Although recent catches are on the up overall, eel populations are down.” New York State measures this minute fishery not in tons but pounds: 4,264 caught in 2007. Some feel the taking of young eels as bait is
driving numbers down, and eels’ refusal to reproduce in captivity precludes any attempts at sustainable aquaculture.

Still, every autumn the urge to procreate rouses Anguilla rostrata on a clandestine passage that is as epic as any migration on Serengeti savannah. Females spawn between seven and 20 years, although one matriarch caught in Ireland was 58 years old. Males quickly follow, and underway to the distant Sargasso Sea they undergo a metamorphosis, with their digestive tracks atrophying. They exist solely on body fat, their eyes enlarge to adjust to oceanic light, hues transform to shades of silver and the blood chemistry adapts to life in saltwater as they swim off on this odyssey still filled with mystery. As writer Richard Schweid notes, “Today’s marine biologists and naturalists
tell us…adult eels have never been seen swimming, reproducing or dying in the Sargasso Sea.”

No creature has been as relished and studied yet remained so enigmatic. Eels are destined for the Sargasso Sea this very evening, but, for me, the autumnal aromas of the barbecue are an integral part of my favorite season. Over the red-hot coals, eel pieces marinated in soy sauce, sherry, sugar, garlic, sesame seed oil and scallions sizzle on the grate. Tonight, I include some Spanish mackerel filets for the Anguilla-phobic, but my wife in a moment of voraciousness
digs into her nemesis.

“This is delicious!” she exclaims. “But that’s eel,” I warn. She bolts back as if stung by a hornet, then surrenders a smile. Her culinary verdict is rendered in the eel’s favor, but when it is esteemed by so few and reviled by many, it appears Anguilla rostrata is destined to remain Long Island’s forgotten fish.

When not sailing as a merchant marine officer, Jim Held pursues culinary and historical topics from Greenwich Village and can’t wait to introduce his son to smoked eel when he’s a little bigger.

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