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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

History of Eels: In Jelly, In Religion, In dodgy horse dealing

Ogden Nash wrote:

I don't mind eels

Except as meals.

And the way they feels.

Churchill more than once used eels as a metaphor. During the Blitz, for example, he said, 'People will have to get used to it. Eels get used to skinning'.

Eating eels is I suppose the first thing that comes to mind when speaking of the subject. And as a food the East End Pie, Mash, and Eel shops selling jellied eels is the most famous way the English have eaten eel. However, Mrs Beeton gives recipes for fried, stewed, pie'd, boiled, collard, and a la tartare eels. They remain, however, an acquired taste today and we ship most of our eels abroad. Think Holland. Yet, poor Londoners began eating jellied eels back in the 18th century as they provided a cheap and sustaining food source, direct from The Thames. But the heyday of the jellied eel was probably the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The shops selling them also first appeared in The East End in the 18th century, yet the name most associated with them is that of Tubby Isaacs (full name Isaac Brenner) in the early 20th century. Tubby was a Russian immigrant who set up a business which continued to thrive until 2013. Tubby also happened to be Jewish. This is of interest as eels are non kosher. This in itself might seem odd as eels have both a fin and scales which is the normal way of identifying a fish according to Jewish dietary laws. But, as an American Rabbi has pointed out, in order to be kosher the scales must be easily removable from the skin and with eels this is far from being the case; An eel's scales form part of their skin and cannot therefore be removed without damaging the skin. Hence non Kosher.

Christians also agonised over eels, but in this case they were defined as fish, and thus could be eaten on fast days, especially during Lent. In fact in the Middle Ages eels were eaten by all classes in English society from kings to peasants. The earliest mention being in Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History of The English People'. The most famous eel eater was King Henry 1, son of William the Conqueror. He died it was said from a surfeit of lampreys or eels (the definitions of the two were somewhat confused in medieval times). However, whether eel or lamprey, the latest medical historical opinion is that although they constituted the King's last meal what actually caused his death was more prosaically a duodenal ulcer. Incidentally, lampreys have long ceased to be eaten.

One extraordinary consequence of Christians eating eels in Lent led to the practice of paying rents in eel. John Wyatt Greenlee writes that the monks of Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire, in 1194, paid a local lord, for the use of a causeway, 'a yearly in-kind rent of 1,000 eels, two pounds each of pepper and ginger [at the time expensive luxuries], and a pair of scarlet trousers'. I just love those scarlet trousers. You can almost hear his wife saying why did you ask for red trousers when you could have asked for more pepper and ginger!

Today, outside of niche eating of jellied eels, it is in The West Country, especially along the banks of The Severn in Gloucestershire, that eels, or rather baby eels, called elvers, are eaten in season. Elvers were once thought magical because when caught and placed in a bucket they are virtually transparent. Dorothy Hartley retells a Somerset story. An old lady had moved away from Somerset to live in Swindon but still hankered after elvers. Her grandson, who worked on the railway, thus one day brought her a bucket of elvers all the way up from Somerset. She took them into her kitchen and began cooking. When she sat down to her meal, neighbours shouted 'Witch!' because they had seen, or thought they had seen, a clear bucket of water taken into the kitchen and then saw a hot fish dinner emerge from it some thirty minutes later.

A lovely story I was once told happened in London. A docker brought home to his new, and non Londoner wife, a large eel. He asked her to cook it for their tea. The eel had arrived in a bucket and was still alive. Closing her eyes the wife took a large mallet to it. She duly hit it hard with her eyes still firmly closed. On opening them there was no sight of the eel. She searched and searched but found no evidence of it at all. In the end she served her husband a boiled egg for his tea, and told her story. As they sat eating their eggs the teapot steamed away in the middle of the table, then all of a sudden the eel dropped dramatically into the middle of their tea. It had been on the ceiling all the time. The heat from the teapot eventually forcing it down.

And, now a final and very odd use of eel. When selling a rather knackered old nag of a horse, according to Francis Grose's 'Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue' (1785), he gives the word 'feaguring' and explains it thus: 'To put ginger up a horse's fundament, and formerly, as it is said, a live eel, to make him lively, and carry his tail well'. Who said history isn't fun!


Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

Mrs Beeton's Household Management

Medieval Eels by John Wyatt Greenlee in the current October edition of the BBC History Magazine

John Wyatt Greenlee's eel history website:

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