Readers may disagree as to whether Johannes Schmidt and countless other researching oceanographers should have dedicated so much of their lives to finding the exact spot where eel eggs are fertilized, but none will dispute the fact that the eel is a slippery subject indeed. Robert Schweid has created an immensely readable and fun book which treats his readers to the pure joy of consideration. Consider the Eel examines gastronomic history, the biology of eels, commercial fishing, the effects of pollution, the intricacies of scientific discovery, and cultural attitudes toward food all in a quirky personal little book filled with wonderfully determined and sometimes prickly characters. He interweaves the personal histories of his characters into a global history, recreating before the reader's eyes different cultures ľand why? To bring something up for the reader's consideration. This is intellectual dalliance and scientific armchair dilettante reading at its very best. So then, let us consider the eel.
For more than two millenia, eels, at different stages, have been delicacies. Aristotle and the ancient Greeks had a love-hate relationship with them, studying their basic biology and enjoying them at their table but also connecting them with the fatalities of the sea. The Egyptians considered the eel a minor god and gave it its own cult. From the Native Americans of the past to the British Isles on to Chinese and Japanese of Asia, eels have been respected and loved. And always, there was the everpresent mystery: where do they spawn and breed? This mystery is important, because eels do not breed in captivity.
An eel goes through three separate stages as it leaves the salt water of the Sargasso Sea (the only place where they reproduce)for the fresh lakes and muddy ditches: larvae which look willow leaves, elvers which are transparent and are fished to supply eel farms and often called glass eels, and then the full grown dark-pigmented eels found in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. The journey of a fished eel depends on cultural tastes, (the Japanese prize full-grown eels, but the Spanish prefer elvers) and the marketing skills of eel merchandisers, pollution and fishing seasons.
Richard Schweid's research is copious and panoramic. Weaving in historical accounts and records, he shows us the history and concepts behind eel-fishing. Along the way, we nibble on tasty little historical sidebars such as the Native American Squanto feeding eels to the starved pilgrims, and a cooperative begun by a soft-spoken Basque priest. Consider does the job a good research book should do. It makes its subject fun, important and interesting: it shows us the eel, its mark on the world and how its particular set of fortunate or unfortunate traits affects the world. The book is a fun digression which takes us into a world rich and strange. Despite the recipes at the end of the book, however, he still hasn't quite convinced me to try them. Recommended for all readers.