As this engaging culinary and natural history reveals, the humble eel is indeed an amazing creature. Every European and American eel begins its life in the Sargasso Sea--a vast, weedy stretch of deep Atlantic waters between Bermuda and the Azores. Larval eels drift for up to three years until they reach the rivers of North America or Europe, where they mature and live as long as two decades before returning to the Sargasso to mate and die. Eels have never been bred successfully in captivity.
Consulting fisherfolk, cooks, and scientists, Schweid takes the reader on a global tour to reveal the economic and gastronomic importance of eel in places such as eastern North Carolina, Spain, Northern Ireland, England, and Japan. (While this rich yet mild-tasting fish has virtually disappeared from U.S. tables, over $2 billion worth of eel is still eagerly consumed in Europe and Asia each year.) The book also includes recipes, both historic and contemporary, for preparing eel.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Consider the Eel
By Richard Schweid
the University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 Richard Schweid
All right reserved.
Pamlico County, North Carolina
"Watch Out for Bears" reads the black-and-yellow, diamond-shaped traffic advisory sign at the start of a 20-mile stretch of eastern North Carolina's four-lane Highway 70, a paved corridor with tall timber on either side. A confused black bear ambling out of these woods for a moment at twilight is not an unusual sighting. More common still, on roads all over the eastern part of the state, are deer, which can instantly ruin the front end of a car as they come bounding out of the night onto a highway and into the headlights; in a split second, a crumpling fender sends their hundred pounds or so flying through the air. What happens to the people inside the car will be a lot less severe if their seatbelts are fastened. And, of course, there are the smaller, although nevertheless startling, nighttime crunches and bumps of a racoon caught beneath a tire while running across the pavement, a rambling possum likewise flattened, or an owl, misjudging its altitude, clipped by the roof to tumble as a lump of cooling feathers to the side of the road. During the day, mostly snakes and tortoises are squashed into the asphalt.
Even when the car is not being assaulted by animal bodies, a person driving the roads of coastal North Carolina has a sense of being prettyfar out in the wilderness. That 20 miles of bear-posted avenue through tall woods is just west of New Bern, a small city that was the second town incorporated in colonial days, in 1710, and served intermittently as capital of the colony, and later state, of North Carolina until 1792. These days, it is simply the seat of Craven County, home to a population of about 22,000, along with a pair of shopping malls, some lovely colonial houses, and the same beautiful frontage on the Trent River that it has always enjoyed. It is also, as it has always been, the last urban outpost before heading east into deep coastal country.
A few miles past New Bern is the eastern edge of Craven County and westernmost boundary of Pamlico County. From there, it is 26 miles by two-lane road through flat woodland and cultivated fields to the land's edge at the brackish water of Pamlico Sound. For long stretches on those backcountry coastal roads one encounters no other cars in either direction. Traffic is so sparse that drivers of vehicles passing in opposite lanes wave at each other. There may be an occasional house, or a mobile home up on blocks, and lots of long vistas of fields gleaming white with cotton or green with soybean plants, but there is hardly any sign of human habitation other than ploughed and planted ground. Every so often, one passes a family cemetery with a half-dozen headstones in a small, cleared plot cut out of the pine woods next to a house. Many miles of fields and forest, and other than worked ground there is precious little sign of human beings, certainly nowhere a person could stop and spend money. Urban America seems a long way away indeed.
While it may look like mostly solid ground from a passing car, no part of Pamlico County is far from big water, and always close at hand are the wild tracts of bogs, swamps, and wetlands that lead to the sound, or to the rivers that empty into it; there are many ambiguous, squishy square miles of neither land nor water but some combination of the two, hospitable to little more than alligators, spiders, mosquitoes, snakes, and the area's watermen, who know from long experience how to steer their boats along the narrow channels of open water that wind through the marshes of Spartina grass. Pamlico County encloses 341 square miles of land and 235 square miles of water. In the whole county there is only one stoplight - in the middle of Bayboro, the county seat - although there are half a dozen Holiness Pentecostal churches, and another raft of Free Will Baptist congregations, in addition to the usual Southern Baptist, AME Zion, United Methodist, and other black and white Protestant houses of worship. There are more churches than stores.
People living in this world of woods and water are both nourished and limited by it. It provides them, in many cases, with the means to make their livings and connects their lives to a traditional natural order. On the other hand, those who want to get in their cars and go see a movie, shop for clothes, or go to much of a mall will have to drive at least as far as New Bern to do so. People's lives near the coast are still shaped and bordered by the huge, wild, unpopulated space around them. There is no large industry, and many of Pamlico County's approximately 12,000 residents make their livings from the sound, whether by directly harvesting its fish and shellfish or by working in a crab house or seafood packing plant. Most of the rest of them work the land, farming soybeans, cotton, or peanuts.
Pamlico Sound is some five miles wide in places and extends 40 miles out to the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. It is a vast body of shallow, brackish water fed by the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers from the west and the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean that manages to flow into the sound between the islands of the Outer Banks from the east. It has traditionally been one of the nation's richest fishing grounds, much like the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia and Maryland, a few hours' drive to the north. Despite a continuing degradation of its waters, the sound was still, in 1999, a major source of blue crabs, winter flounder, shrimp, menhaden, mullet, and eels.
This blend of salt and fresh water has always provided income and food for people with traps, nets, and small boats, and there is still money, of a sort, to be made. A large number of the white men living in small Pamlico County towns like Arapahoe, Oriental, Bayboro, and Vandemere make all or part of their livings on the water, and the same has been true since the first Europeans settled here in the mid-1700s. New Bern, in neighboring Craven County, has always had its share of millionaires, particularly in colonial times when access to the sea made some maritime traders wealthy, but in Pamlico County people have never gotten rich, only gotten by, and counted themselves lucky, at that, to do so. Those black men from Pamlico County who managed to be their own bosses usually worked the land, farming and raising livestock. The occasional African American has fished commercially since slavery times, but as a rule black fishermen have been few and far between. Although most white men also farmed some and raised a little livestock, many of them made their primary livings on the water. They called themselves watermen, as they still do. In truth, there have always been a goodly number of waterwomen, too. The daughters of watermen sometimes took up fishing, and numerous wives have kept their husbands company, working in two-person teams through many a long day and night on the water.
"I'm a waterman," Billy Truitt, 71, told me. "I'll fish for almost anything. Crab, shrimp, oysters, speckled trout, you name it. I'm a waterman. My father was a waterman, and my wife Lucille's father was a waterman, too.
"My daddy was a mullet fisherman; that's what he did the most of. 'Josephines,' we call mullets here. He had six of us young 'uns to feed, and we had mullet ever' morning of our lives for breakfast. We didn't go hungry 'nary a morning."
Billy Truitt fished for a living since he was ten years old, when he decided that taking a skiff out on the sound and trotlining for blue crabs was easier than working in his father's corn field after school and on Saturdays. Over the course of his life, he owned three good-sized shrimp boats with inboard engines, as well as a variety of skiffs with outboard motors. His wife, Lucille Styron Truitt, who was also raised on the water by her father, was Billy's first mate for many years, and often his only on-board companion. When I met him in 1999, he was semiretired, setting nets a few days a week to make a little extra money, while Lucille stayed home minding their secondhand store in Oriental, a coastal town of some 800 people.
Other than shifting to nylon for a netting material, Billy Truitt fished in essentially the same way as had other fishermen thousands of years before him. The technique could not be less high-tech: set a few hundred yards of net held up by a handful of tall stakes one evening and pull it up early the next morning. The net makes a wall in the water and whatever swims into it overnight gets enmeshed. Gillnetting, pure and simple. The fish often die in the net before it is pulled, so there's no leaving it in the water during the day - after the sun comes up it does not take long for the meat to go off-flavor. That is why gillnetters are on the water at first light, hauling in their catch.
I pushed Billy's 12-foot fiberglass skiff, with its 25-horsepower outboard motor, off his boat trailer and into the sound at 5:30 one cool October morning. As he leaned out of the cab of his pickup, keeping a foot on the brake, he shouted directions back over his shoulder to me as I tried to perch on the trailer with the boat's bow line in one hand, using the other hand to push the boat down toward the water, with me following right behind. "Watch out, watch out, stay up on the trailer," Billy shouted, exasperated, as he watched me lose my footing and step down into the sound. The water poured in over the tops of my rubber boots, and I would spend the morning with wet feet.
The sky was lightening to a pastel rose above the liquid black of the Pamlico Sound's surface; the only night left above was a crescent moon and the morning star. An occasional early-rising seagull passed overhead, between us and the rose sky, an inky silhouette of body and outstretched wings. We motored out along the bulkhead that holds the sound back from Oriental, around the diminutive Whitaker Creek Island with its stand of loblolly pine, to a 14-foot-high bamboo stake that marked one end of Billy's set where he had laid down his nylon gill net, at dusk, the previous evening. Between the stakes, corks bobbed every foot or so at the top of a wall of net, which was weighted at the bottom with lead beneath each cork. The stake marking the other end of the net was barely visible, sticking up against the sky 500 yards away across the water.
Billy, wearing yellow oilskins, cut the engine and prepared to go to work. His formerly red hair was now mostly gray, though it remained thick, and his body had a rounded slope to it, but even at 71 he was a strong man who looked like he could hold his own. "I'm about give out now, I'm all stove in, but I used to be able to really work," he told me. "I could fish all day and all night."
He got right to it, standing in the stern, back straight, legs apart, one freckled, pale, square hand pulling in the cork line, the other the lead line, piling the net carefully at his feet so that it would go out smoothly when he set it again that evening. As the fish came in, he made quick work of disentangling and culling them. He was hoping for an abundant take of speckled trout (known elsewhere as weakfish), spot, croaker, and mullet, the species for which the fish houses were willing to pay. A couple of the speckled trout that came up in the net were big beauties, three pounds of flashing sea-silver bodies with black spots, lean and mean, with razor sharp teeth. These he handled a little more carefully, but the rest of the net's contents - trash fish or those it was against the law to keep - he got out as quickly as possible, pulling, pushing, ripping, and tearing them loose, throwing back the small flounder, hog chokers, puppy drum, and menhaden to swim away if they were alive or otherwise to sink, spiraling slowly, slowly, down, or be snatched off the surface by the gulls hovering in the air around us. Some of the fish in the net were nothing more than head and backbone, the meat all picked away by blue crabs or torn off by eels. The eels swim through or around the net and are gone by the time it is pulled, but the crabs frequently come up entwined in it. Billy broke their claws off, so they could not nip him, before disentangling and tossing them back into the water to swim off and begin the process of growing new claws.
The waxed cardboard boxes on the floor of the boat filled slowly with fish. It took Billy nearly three hours to run the net. He worked steadily, stopping only once to turn and relieve himself over the skiff's side. By net's end, his yellow oilskins were covered with fish blood, scales, and dirt from the sound itself. Hurricane Floyd had passed through eastern North Carolina the month before, with devastating results, leaving the water of the sound a reddish, rust brown, full of runoff from upriver pig farms, the dirtiest Billy said he had ever seen it. The net was piled waist high in the stern in front of him; the sun was well up in the sky; and there was occasional traffic on the water - crab boats pulling up pots, trawlers headed toward the Outer Banks, yachts with engines and yachts with sails. Billy dug two cans of Diet Pepsi out of the little red cooler he had brought with him, along with a pair of cellophane-wrapped packets of crackers and processed cheese. He sat down on the stern seat to eat this breakfast, the first seat he had taken in three hours, and he stiffened up so quickly that five minutes later, when we were done eating our snack and ready to head in, he had to spend half a minute gathering himself before he could lurch to his feet with a groan, yank the outboard's starter rope, and set the boat toward home under the blue sky and risen bright sun. At $1.50 a pound for the morning's 24 pounds of speckled trout and 50 cents a pound for the 50 pounds of mullet, Billy had spent three hours earning not much over $50, without even subtracting the cost of the gas and the soft drinks. Still, for three hours' work that came to pretty good money for a 71-year-old fisherman.
Excerpted from Consider the Eel by Richard Schweid Copyright © 2002 by Richard Schweid
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Pamlico County, North Carolina
Chapter 2. Interstate 95
Chapter 3. Guipúzcoa, Basque Country, Spain
Chapter 4. Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland
Chapter 5. Yankee Eels
Chapter 6. Fishing and Farming
A Taste of Eel
What People are Saying About This
[An] engaging look at an important food fish. . . . Schweid delves into both the science and the folklore surrounding this fish.Booklist
Everything you always wanted to know about eels. . . . Will delight anyone with a taste for natural history. . . . Schweid is just as interested in the nexus of eel and humankind. A good portion of Consider the Eel is spent not with eels but with those who catch, sell andto a somewhat lesser extenteat them.New York Times Book Review
Schweid helps us realize what a strange and fascinating little fish the eel is. . . . Schweid writes with clarity and enthusiasm, combining elementary biology with recipes from England, Europe, and America, historical notes on fishing and cooking, and present-day interviews with fishers and others.Library Journal
Richard Schweid is a journalist, a sociologist, an anthropologist, and a novelist, all rolled into one. Consider the Eel is a marvelous book, one that manages to be both informative and entertaining. The best thing I've read in a long time.Steve Yarbrough, author of Visible Spirits
A delightful little book.New Orleans Times-Picayune
Schweid, author of earlier encomiums to such varied natural wonders as catfish, hot peppers and the cockroach, slithers across space and time from the Sargasso Sea to North Carolina's Neuse River to take the measure of this least-understood fish species.Chicago Tribune
In Consider the Eel, Richard Schweid exploits that curiosity so often associated with subjects that engender both fear and fascination. . . . The account of eel biology that emerges at various points in Schweid's book is a tribute to his wide and up-to-date reading. . . . Much of the charm of Consider the Eel is that Richard Schweid imparts his freshly acquired knowledge in the words of those directly involved in the industry. . . . Those who fish for or deal in eels . . . are a secretive bunch, and it says much for Schweid's professionalism and underlying sympathy that he was able to extract so much colour and interest from the men and women he sought out. . . . Richard Schweid has given us a perceptive, contemporary snapshot of their changing world. The result is a fine piece of archival writing. . . . No fishery enthusiast should be without it.Times Literary Supplement
Richard Schweid's growing number of fans will be delighted by his new book Consider the Eel. . . . [It] may be his best work yet. With wit and enthusiasm, Schweid tells the story of a fascinating creature. . . . Schweid is a curious naturalist, a compassionate sociologist and a fine writer. . . . His books are a wonderful blend of travel narrative, natural history, sociology and pure writing. Each literate, adventurous outing seems more quirky and personal and imaginative than the last. And the craftsmanship just gets better and betterprecise observation, dry wit, impassioned reporting without a hint of polemic.Book Page
Richard Schweid has an uncanny knack for turning quirky research projects into travel adventures. His growing circle of ride-along readers, having followed him in search of hot peppers, catfish, and cockroaches, will delight in his sure-handed grasp of the slippery eel.John Egerton, author of Southern Food
The eel is a slippery creature, but a tasty one, celebrated for its flavor in many parts of the world. Richard Schweid . . . has pinned down his slippery subject efficiently and with authority and wit.Colman Andrews, editor-in-chief, Saveur