This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
Belonging to the Anguillidae, or Snake tribe, the Eel shares in some respects the characteristics of the Anguis, (or Choker), named thus on the same foundation as the Boa Constrictor. It is the hero of many fables, having been worshipped as a deity by the Egyptians. Later on the Eel stews of Mahommed the Second kept the whole Turkish Empire in a state of nervous excitement; and, again, one of the Eel pies which King Philip failed to digest caused the Revolt of the Netherlands. Jews decline to eat Eels, probably because of their similarity to serpents, which they formerly reverenced. An accolade of Eels on the spit used to be put every Saturday on the table of Anne of Austria, Queen of Louis XIII. The sea Eel contains 9 per cent of fat, and the river Eel 25 per cent, with 34 per cent of nutritive substance; this latter fish is well adapted as a food for the diabetic. For cooking, silver Eels should be chosen, fresh, brisk, and full of life; "such as have been kept out of water till they can scarce stir are good for nothing." Yellow Eels taste muddy.
In order to kill the creatures (which are most tenacious of life) instantly, the spinal marrow should be pierced close to the back part of the skull with a skewer sharply pointed; if this be done in the right place all motion will instantly cease. The humane executioner favours certain criminals by "hanging them before he breaks them on the wheel." Eels were at one time a staple English food, since they supplied almost the only animal nourishment to which the poor could aspire. Likewise they were early favourites in the monasteries. About Italy Eels are eaten for breakfast, dinner, and supper by the masses; they grow to a large size, and are reputed to be of excellent flavour. The Conger Eel, which is caught on our rocky coasts, and especially round the Channel Islands, is a much larger fish, with an average length of from three to four feet; sometimes of even far more gigantic conditions - "Monstrum horrendum, informe, et ingens," weighing from seventy to eighty pounds. These Eels are dried by the French, and Italians, in the sun, when opened and flattened out, under the name of Conger douce. If ground down into powder they help to enrich soups by being admixed therewith, especially mock-turtle soup, according to Frank Buckland. Also the Conger Eel is cooked in a pie.
Because of sometimes containing a special toxin, this Eel will occasionally induce a choleraic attack. "Though the fresh-water Eel, when dressed," writes Izaak Walton, "be excellent good, yet it is certain that physicians account it dangerous meat".
"Eels," says Paulus Jovius (Burton), "he abhorreth in all places, and at all times; every physician detests them, especially about the solstice." The Eel's blood contains a highly poisonous principle which asserts its dangerous properties if injected into the human blood, but which becomes inert under the process of digestion when Eels are taken as food. For Alice (in Wonderland) an old Conger Eel was the "drawling master, who came once a week to teach drawling, stretching, and fainting in coils".
The skin of an Eel is employed by negroes as a remedy against rheumatism. Formerly our sailors, when they wore pigtails of the hair behind the head, encased the same for protection, and neatness, in an Eel skin. Again, a "salt Eel" was formerly an Eel skin prepared for use as a whip. Pepys relates in his Diary (April 24, 1663): "Up betimes, and with my Salt Eele went down in the parlor, and there got my boy, and did beat him until I was faine to take breath two or three times." The skin of an Eel is hard, tough, and dark of colour, with an oily fat just underneath; it can be pulled off like a stocking after first cutting a circular incision round the Eel's neck. Robert Lovell (1661) protested that mud-begotten Eels "fill the body with many diseases; they are worst in summer, but never wholesome." And a curious old ballad tells the same story as having befallen "the croodlin' doo":-
"O, whaur ha'e ye been a' the day, My little wee croodlin doo?
O I've been at my grandmither's: Mak' my bed, mammie, noo!
"O what gat ye at your grandmither's, My little wee croodlin doo?
I got a bonnie wee fishie: Mak' my bed, mammie, noo!
"O whaur did she catch the fishie, My little wee croodlin doo? She catched it in the gutter hole: Mak' my bed, mammie, noo !
"And what did she do wi' the fishie, My little wee croodlin doo? She boiled it in a brass pan: Mak' my bed, mammie, noo!
"And what did ye do wi' the banes o't, My little wee croodlin doo? I gi'ed them to my little dog: Mak' my bed, mammie, noo!
"And what did your little doggie do, My little wee croodlin doo? He stretched out his head, and feet, and dee'd: Mak' my bed, mammie, noo! "
The Lamprey (Petromyzon, Stone-Sucker) is in appearance like a small Eel, having a mouth like the large end of a funnel, and dotted all over with small hook-shaped teeth; also with tiny sacs instead of gills - seven on each side of the body near the head. It is found principally in the Severn, the Thames, and in Scotch waters. Formerly but little use was made of it, except to be dried, and burnt as a candle. The flesh is sweet, and good, and of much nourishment: it increases lust, and by reason of its richness easily causes surfeits if much eaten. The truth is that Lampreys, and Lamperns, contain an abundance of fish oil, and are most profitable for persons of vivacious hectic temperament needing much caloric, and who betray consumptive tendencies, because of its rapid expenditure in their bodies. King Henry the First lost his life by eating Lampreys to excess. They should be stewed in their own moisture, with spices, and beef gravy added, and a little Port wine. A Lamprey is first a Lampron, then a Lampret, then a Lamprell, and finally a Lamprey. The Lampern is the river sort (fluviatilis). It has been related that the Romans fed Lampreys on the dead bodies of slaves, and that Pollio Vedius ordered a living slave who had maliciously broken a glass vessel to be "thrown to the Lampreys " (as if they were wild beasts). Platina reproved the Popes and great folks of Rome for their luxury in Lampreys, which they drowned in Cyprus wine, with a nutmeg in the mouth, and a clove in each gill-hole. The Lampern of the Thames is much smaller than the Lamprey of the Severn. Pliny tells that "Antonia, the wife of Drusus, had a Lamprey at whose gills she hung jewels, or ear-rings; and that other persons have been so tender-hearted as to shed tears at the death of fishes which they have kept, and loved".