(HOST) Though you may not like to eat sauteed eel, Ruth Page thinks you should try it. And, at least, you may be impressed by their endless-travel lifestyle.
(PAGE) Eels do it backwards, at least compared to salmon. Salmon are born in fresh water, grow up and swim in the ocean, then return to the river they started from, spawn and die. Our American eels and their European cousins mature in anything from 20 to 40 years. Both lay their eggs in the Sargasso Sea in the central North Atlantic Ocean. Transparent infants called glass eels, only a couple of inches long, head for fresh water, some toward Europe, some toward the U. S.
Not much has been understood about eels until recently, when curious researchers started studying their life cycles and their incredible travels. A story by T. Edward Nickens in a recent Audubon magazine describes how he waded out one moonlit night to seek glass eels. He spotted them by the hundreds, wriggling away from the spillway of a dam. He said these babies have minuscule eyes, tiny hearts and fins like feathers. Not, you’d think, designed for tough travel.
The youngsters, turning into elvers as their skin darkens, swim through the continent’s complicated river systems. They wriggle through creeks, swamps, marshes, even wet grass, spreading all over the eastern edge of the continent; some conquer the waterways of the West. Folks who have nice rain-wet, or just sprinkler-wet lawns can provide part of the eels’ twisty routes. For brief periods eels can inhale through their skins, enabling them to take short, wet-grass routes.
They grow into yellow eels as time goes by. After many years, they reach full maturity as silver eels. That’s when they develop sexual characteristics. They don’t need sex any earlier, so their bodies don’t waste energy on preparing for it until near the end.
Then, the eels’ skins get thicker, their digestive tracts work no longer, and they head back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die. By then they’ve traveled many miles and seen a great deal of the watery portions of the continent and the northern Atlantic. Some may even have passed unnoticed through your wet lawn, or the tiny creek or stream bordering your property.
Are they good to eat? Darn right. People in Europe are well aware of it, and they’re a popular food fish. Some Americans may be turned off by the fact that, when they’re frying in the pan, they appear to wiggle. Headless and cut up, their muscles still seem to react to the heat. My mom used to saute eel occasionally; we liked watching them in the pan, and they tasted delicious.
It seems odd to me that many Americans think a slithery, squishy raw oyster is fine, but a chewy, cooked piece of eel isn’t. They should try it.
This is Ruth Page in Shelburne.