Porter Gifford is Introduced to Eels

When was the last time you ate eel? I do it, occasionally, at Japanese restaurants, where eel is known as unagi, comes warmed on a ball of rice, and covered with a dark kabeyaki sauce. I like it, but my wife can barely stand to look at it. Needless to say, it has never graced our dining table at home.

My first exposure to eels as a dish of food was in 1989, while on a family vacation to Spain. My father, Oldways founder Dun Gifford, was not one of those who struggled with the concept of eating eels, or much else for that matter, and had brought the family to a restaurant in Madrid that specialized in “angulas,” the Spanish dish of baby eels cooked in oil with garlic and chili peppers. I remember when that eel-filled plate hit the table in front of my father. Amidst the theatrics that followed — shouts of “gross”, throat-clutching, and fainting, my father happily picked up the little wooden fork made specifically for this particular delicacy, and dug in. He made us all try, of course, and I remember the queasy feeling as one single baby eel slid down my reluctant throat.

I was just in Spain with my own family, and was not surprised to discover that angulas are harder to find than they once were (it took a determined search to find them even at the Boqueria in Barcelona, a market known the world over for it’s variety of available foods). Eels as a species are under serious threat, and the market for them is in a considerable bubble. I spent the spring of 2012 documenting the eel harvest on the coast of Maine, where the price for a pound of baby eels can reach over $2000. (You can see the photos from that effort here: www.portergifford.com/public/eels/.)

The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet are well known in my house, but the recent findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine decidedly confirming these benefits led me to re-evaluate my own diet. And even though I saw quickly that “oily fish” was an area that needed improvement, I think I’ll continue to keep eel off the menu for the time being. I will rely instead on a regular tuna fish sandwich, and when feeling adventurous, perhaps an anchovy. 

- Porter Gifford

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