Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eel

 "The Interpreter of Silences" by Jean McNeil is a novel set in a small coastal village in Cape Breton.  The story is full of eels, a fish that serves as a metaphor for the life of central character Eve.  From the opening paragraph of the book eels are featured, en masse, swimming in a migratory pattern that takes them from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea to the shores of Nova Scotia and back again.

"For months they are only scraps of transparent gelatinous flesh, no bigger than a thumbnail.  They float, thickening, until they resemble tiny chevrons.  By the time they reach the island they have lengthened and look like thin hairs dotted on the ends with two tiny black eyes.  This is the first of several mutations: throughout their lives they will change colour and shape several times, even the composition of their blood."  

"They will arrive and leave at night, entering the island's salt lakes through a bight, wrung in the currents that swirl around the stanchions of the Seal Island Bridge.  They taste the sudden drop in salinity and know they are home.  Although they have never seen this before, there is also something familiar about the single halogen light and the two concrete fingers pointing into the lake in a V, the coal-black water, the shattered hulk of a ruined ferry."

"She is standing on the shore beside the ferry with her father.  He is pointing southeast, in the direction of the Sargasso Sea.  She is twelve years old and her father is explaining that the eels will return there to die.  In his voice is the rough note of satisfaction produced by inevitable truths.  Less than you might imagine separates him or her from these creatures, he says; like them we will return to the nowhere from which we came.  There we will start again.  We are on a loop, he tells her.  Time is repeating itself endlessly, we are repeating ourselves." 

Continuity - eels are a good representative for that. It's not only their snake-like shape suggesting the image of Ouroboros, or the perfect circle of a life cycle made up of instinctive departure and return.   It's tradition in our household;  no New Year's eve celebration would be complete without smoked eel on the table.

My husband Robert has fond memories of "gerookte paling" served on slices of rye bread in his native home, the Netherlands.  The custom is shared by many European countries and seems appropriate fare for a night that heralds the end of the old calendar year, and the beginning of the new.  Perhaps the custom derives from Christian iconography.   After restoration of the work, art historians confirmed that a plate of eel is depicted on the table in Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper."

Leonardo da Vinci, "Last Supper" detail of plate with sliced eel

In the pioneer days of New Brunswick, eels provided a nutritious year-round food for Mi'kmaq and Acadians.  August to November was prime time for downstream runs of mature eels to the ocean, and spring brought the small elvers upriver.  During the winter months, eels could be harvested through the ice with a rake-like spear that pulled the fish from the muddy river bottom.   Mi'kmaq performed a ritual at the end of January called "grandfather feeding" or "apuknajit." By leaving eel heads and skins on a tree stump, natives offered gratitude to their ancestors for helping them to survive the harshest part of winter.

Tonight we'll eat eel for the last supper of the year and give thanks for our survival.  The loop continues...
Happy New Year!

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