5.0 out of 5 stars The Folklore of Eels
I love eels. And by that, I mean I love to eat them. I discovered the joys of unagi kabayaki (broiled eel) when I lived in Japan, and after one taste I was scarking down as many of them as I could afford. They are a unique and delicous animal.
But aside from their taste, I didn’t know much about eels. I knew little about their biology, about thier habitats and territory. I didn’t even know if they were fish, or some other form of marine life.
After reading James Prosek’s “Eels,” I found that I was not alone in my ignorance. Eels are a mysterious creature, apparently, even to those who have dedicated their lives to studying them. They are spawned somewhere and somehow in the deep Sargasso Sea, then swim hundreds of miles as tiny little glass eels to the freshwater river systems of the world to live out their lives. When they get big enough, they head back out to the same place in the ocean, where they mate and die to start the cycle all over again. Maybe. That is the equivilent of the scientific “best guest” and know one knows for sure what the life-cycle of an eel is.
Perhaps it is this lack of solid information that sent Prosek in search of the mythological. Because “Eels” is more of a Joseph Campbell book than a Stephen Jay Gould. Prosek explores four cultures that are rich with eel-lore. The first is a solitary man, Ray Turner, who runs an ancient Eel Weir on the Delaware River in the Catskills Mountains. Ray is the very picture of a back-to-nature mountain man/philosopher. His weir is hand-built every year from stones he hauled with his own hand, and he forbids the use of machinery to aid in his back-breaking labor. The eels he catches are hand-smoked and sold for Ray’s only income. From there, Prosek goes to New Zealand and the Moari, who catch and eat eels as traditional food but still consider certain eels to be sacred, called taniwha. When discovered, taniwha must be set free or else suffer terrible curses. After New Zealand, Prosek takes a look at the place where eels go to die, Japan. The endless appetite of Japanese people for unagi kabayaki has fueled an industry that leads to baby glass eels being worth more than their weight in gold. Finally, the tiny island of Phohnpei where all eels are sacred and they would no more eat an eel than your average American would eat a dog or a Hindu a cow.
I love mythology and folklore, and especially travel, so I enjoyed Prosek’s exploration of these native cultures and their eel lore. The island of Phohnpei was particularly fascinating, with an entire creation mythology built around eels that is told in a sacred story. Each person knows a part of the story, and it is thought that if a human being completes the story than they finish their lives. My previous knowledge of Phohnpei had consisted entirely of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, where Phohnpei is the closets human-populated island to the sunken city of R’lyeh. The island was so mythological to me that I didn’t even know it was a real place!
A cool book altogether, but not what I was suspecting. There is little here of biology or cooking. Sure, those aspects were touched upon, but not to any great degree. But the Story of Eels was fascinating and will give me something to think about the next time I set down to a dish of unagi kabayaki!