Full disclosure: I don’t like the taste of eel. Frankly, I’m not big on salmon, either. When it gets right down to it, I’m a cold-blooded East Coast transplant who won’t even clean her own crab.
But while I may not like eel, it ranks high with local foodies for a good reason: Its meaty taste is both filling and exquisitely fishy. And no matter how your taste buds may vote, just seeing eel roasting on a stake should count as a treat, because eel means more than its meat.
From its life cycle, to the way it’s hooked, to the way it’s roasted, eel serves as a connecting link between local people and a local food tradition that goes back to the beginning of time. Eel means powerful ocean; eel means manhood and respect for the river; eel means life renewed.
On the other hand, “eel” doesn’t mean eel at all. What we call eel in Del Norte County is actually lamprey. Zoologically speaking, real eel taxonomy is quite different from that of the lamprey; lamprey don’t even count as a fish. For one thing, they don’t have bones. Like sharks and rays, lamprey hold themselves together with cartilage. That’s one of the reasons our “eels” are so hard to hook — they writhe and twist with more flexibility than a Circ del Solei acrobat.
It’s eeling time now on the Klamath River. Hooking eels requires a great deal of athleticism, cooperation, and respect for the river. Eelers wait near the mouth of the Klamath for a surge of the sleek, white creatures making their way upstream. Lamprey, like salmon, return to fresh water to spawn and die, so eeling takes place at predictable times during the year.
Eeling is usually done in groups, and in the Yurok tradition, by men
only. They battle the surging waves together and watch out for each
other’s safety. It’s a time for bonding and sharing traditional
Once the eelers spot their quarry at the mouth of the river, they race
with them upstream, dipping their hooks into the water, hoping to catch
an eel. When an eeler catches one, he immediately begins swinging it
round and round over his head, using centrifugal force to keep the eel
on the hook until he can drop it into a sack or a hole dug into the
Local eeler and essayist Joel Gordon explains that once the eels are
caught, they can be roasted on site. Traditionalists roast them facing
upriver, in the direction the creatures were heading, to honor the
completion of their life cycle. Read more about Joel’s experience at
home.earthlink.net/~jandsgordon/Essays/eeling.htm . Whether you roast or smoke your eel — or
politely take a rain check, as I do, eel is an important part of life
here in Del Norte.
Why? Because Yurok culture is an important part of who we are as Del
Norters. We residents share a collective heritage, regardless of where
our parents came from. We depend on this heritage — it connects us to
the land and gives us our identity. So, too, the Yurok culture depends
on the eels, and the eels depend on the Klamath River. Eeling time
offers a reminder of all that we have — and all that is at stake when
it comes to the health of the Klamath.
Eel is more than part of our food shed — it’s a symbol of our tenuous connection to both the past and the future.