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  • May 1st, 2020

EELS AND OWLS FOR DINNER, ANYONE?

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was fruitlessly flogging the promising -looking waters of a Welch River on a sunny, glorious warm day, supposedly a rarity in this legendarily gray and grim country. Wales contrary to that description is the Montana of Great Britain, rugged and mountainous, with streams that fairly scream for an adept fly fisherman to loft a Jock Scott streamer and tie into an ocean run Atlantic salmon.

 

I didn’t even tie into my usual bank side tree, but did unfurl glorious cast after glorious cast. I could have posed for the beautifully unfurling casts of the movie “A River Runs Through It” but after several hours of fruitless casting, I gave it up and headed back to the ancient pub where we were staying. However, that night in the common room, a craggy, weatherbeaten fellow next to me asked, “tha wert oot on the river this afternoon, weren’t tha?” I allowed is how I was but without success, but he warmed me like the good single malt I was drinking when he added, “tha cast a gude line, laddie.”

 

I would’ve been more heart warmed except for the fact that this amiable and obvious Scot, apparently down from Scotland visiting his southern neighbors in Wales, had been bank fishing for eels. In my Missouri home state my list of deep prejudices is one that does not equate an eel with a noble Atlantic salmon. I’m sorry, but that’s just me. I recalled the episode recently when I read a Facebook posting from someone lamenting the erratic run of elvers on the Medomak River in Maine.

 

While I vaguely knew that eels were fished for and of various uses, I was astonished to learn that elvers, one of the various stages of an eel’s life, can be worth up to $500 a pound. I was even more astonished when I researched eels. In case you don’t know, an eel is a fish with all the attributes of the fish you pay good money to sit down to a gourmet dinner in an upscale restaurant— say a salmon, trout or other glamour fish.

 

But one look at a mature eel on my dinner plate would send me hustling to the nearest restroom gagging and gulping. In short, an eel looks like a snake and I don’t eat snakes. Well, actually one time I did partake of one bite of a rattlesnake in the Arkansas woods, on a turkey hunt. One of our hunting party had found it freshly run over on the road, skinned it out and, declaring himself a gourmet camp cook, fried it up for supper. I can testify that that one bite if I had not spit it out would still be available for mastication years later. I’ve never actually tried to eat a piece of garden hose, but the consistency of the snake was the same, and the more I chewed it, the more it refused to yield.

 

That was my one and, God willing, my only dining encounter with anything that even vaguely resembles the American eel. Several members of our family (think two daughters—the three boys could not care less) keep suggesting that a good time passer during this period of home confinement, thanks to Covid 19 would be to clean out our freezer. That noble venture is right up there with the necessity “someday” to straighten up my home office which, I have to admit, looks like the aftermath of an in-house tornado.

 

I’m intimidated by the prospect of delving into the freezer for fear of what I will find there, since I know some of the artifacts involved. I’d rather leave it to archaeologists in a far distant future to unearth packages of our stored items and no doubt exclaim, “Who the hell was this guy!” Because, I know that one of the long-ago frozen items is an eel. It got stored there because a guy I knew caught it, had some vague idea of cooking it, didn’t have a freezer, and asked if he could stash it in my freezer. That was so long ago that the guy (whom I came to despise) has gone to whatever corner of hell those who saddle people with leftover eels are consigned to.

 

Though the erstwhile friend is gone the eel lingers on which brings to mind an old joke that I love. An explorer became ill in the wilds and visited a local medicine man, hoping for a cure. The medicine man handed him a strip of rawhide and said “chew a piece of this each day for a week and you’ll be cured.” So the man dutifully bit off a piece of the strip for a week, but felt no better and went back to the medicine man and complained that the cure didn’t work. (Here comes the punchline) “I can’t understand it” said the medicine man, “the thong is ended but the malady lingers on.”

 

Anyway, perhaps nestled slimy eel, cheek by feathered jowl in my freezer is a package containing a tiny screech owl which I found dead on a path, early one morning. It was so cute I couldn’t resist bringing it home and for reasons which now escape me, I froze it. Forgotten until now, it has resided somewhere in the packed freezer for many years. Possibly I was hoping for some sort of cryogenic resuscitation, where the little owl would thaw, fluff its feathers, and fly away to enliven the night with frightening screams.

 

Once we played host for a couple weeks to a pair of kestrels who had been “rescued” by some well-meaning observer who didn’t know to leave well enough alone. A conservation agent confiscated the two orphans and they became part of the Conservation Department’s wildlife exhibit at the Missouri State Fair. The orphans needed a place to acclimate to the wild before they were released and I volunteered. We put them in a kitten crate on the back deck with the gate open so they could come and go and I fed them, at  first, with globs of hamburger. Very quickly they adapted to dining on the handrail of the deck, but I realized they needed to learn how to take prey if they were to become truly wild.

 

It was grasshopper time and I caught several, but realized the instant I put them down the hoppers would be a hop or two from freedom before the little hawks’ predatory instinct kicked in. So I put the hoppers in the freezer for two or three minutes to chill them and then put them on the rail. Animal rights folks may criticize me for being cruel to grasshoppers, but the experiment worked like a charm. The instant the insects began to stir, so did the killer instinct of the birds. Within a day or two my little avian friends were exploring the neighborhood for their own grasshoppers, ones without hypothermia. A few days after that, even though they returned a time or two to the back deck railing, they finally vanished into the wild where they belonged.

 

Back to eels for a moment (he said, repressing a shudder), the elver stage is prized as bait, especially for bluefish, an ocean fish which tastes wonderful but which has a set of teeth that the wise individual would avoid even if it meant leaving an expensive elver halfway down the fish’s gullet. I have a friend who fly fishes for smallmouth bass with what he calls a bunny strip, a black dyed strip of rabbit fur that either imitates a stretched out leech or perhaps an elver. Either way, it is far more attractive to a bass than it is to me.

 

Our freezer is that rarity of household appliances that lasts for many years. It is so old that it apparently was manufactured before the age of planned obsolescence. You can be certain that today any appliance you buy has a shelf life guaranteeing that it will die long before you do. The freezer may well date to shortly after Marty’s and my blissful matrimony— we acquired it so long ago that I have forgotten the details but it hums quietly and contentedly day after day, month after month, and year after year.

 

It has no automatic defrost and periodically over the years I have emptied it keeping the frozen packages in a pile while I attack the accumulated ice and frost inside the box with hammer and chisel. That’s probably not the recommended method of ensuring freezer health, but it has worked so far and after chiseling off many pounds of ice like a crewman during a Bering Sea storm on the “Deadliest Catch” television show, I reloaded the freezer and shut the lid on whatever oddities I have stashed there over the years.

 

I once trapped and froze a house mouse to use as a prop for a photo with a barn owl. The owl was another Conservation Department refugee and several of us gathered to photograph it as it clutched, the mouse which we hoped would look as if the owl had just caught it. The owl dutifully grasped the defrosted mouse and the photos turned out beautifully except that the mouse looked as dispirited as a cabinet level employee who has just been fired by Donald Trump from a very lucrative government position.

 

 

The hallmark of someone with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is to make sure that everything is in order. The freezer of someone with OCD, for example, would have every package neatly arranged in categories, probably posted on a list inside the lid, and every package would sport a comprehensive label detailing the contents within. That person and that freezer does not belong to the guy side of the Vance family.

 

The packages are jumbled in no discernible fashion and the main requisite is that they fit. This is why things like eels and owls find their way toward the bottom over the years. Even the labeling contains a certain amount of by-guess-and-by-God contemplation. For example the aforementioned two daughters who have an out of family character affinity for neatness and order, treat as a family joke that there is in our freezer a package labeled “Spanish rice without the rice.” They even tell other people about it. I’m sure that at the moment when we consigned the riceless rice dish to the freezer we had a perfectly logical reason for doing it, but that reason has long since vanished among the owls and eels. “It’s in a Cool Whip carton with a masking tape label reading “Spanish rice without the rice” says Daughter Number One with a depressingly accurate memory.

 

So our freezer remains the modern equivalent of the legend of Pandora’s box. In Greek mythology, Pandora opened a box which loosed all kinds of evil on the world including sickness and death (was there perhaps a modern Pandora in China who recently got to fooling around with the lid on a box she wasn’t supposed to open?)

 

I think I will put a label (using masking tape of course) on the front of the freezer saying “Pandora ‘s Ice Box. Beware ye who enter here. Eels and owls lie within!”

 

 

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