Elvers Sighted in Maine
Elver is a name given to a small baby eel (American eel, Anguilla rostrata) which is craved by the Japanese. The local sources of their version of the snake-like sea creatures (Anguilla japonica) have all but disappeared. They like to get them from nature and raise them in captivity and then eat them. What makes everyone excited these days is that the price per pound has now exceeded $2,000, so those lucky 400 with licenses to catch eel babies in Maine can often make their entire year’s income in a few days.
Catching elvers consists of staking out a good spot on a riverbank at night. You need a small dipnet, a 5 gallon bucket and a Colman lantern. Besides the license, that’s it. The other trick is to get your catch to a broker while they’re still alive and healthy. Once you get to know your buyer however, he can arrange to come to you. The translucent, pencil-like eels squirm like a young Elvis on stage, but each one is worth $5. Our preference in food may be more like Elvis’s fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches, but eel is quite a delicacy in the Orient, and some Mainers are very happy about that.
The American eel starts its life in the Sargasso Sea, that huge swath of the mid-Atlantic east of the Bahamas and south of Bermuda. It also returns there to spawn and die in the fall. In between, it lives in fresh water, but it takes a year before the tiny larvae become elvers, also known as glass eels. It is these glass eels which are sought after now, and which the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese raise to adulthood for the dish pictured on the top right. I have also had smoked eel from Larsen’s fish market in Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard, MA., but I’m pretty sure it was caught at sea. It was boney, but good. A quick check of Larson’s webpage showed no smoked eels for sale now. So it’s off to the nearest Japanese restaurant if you want some. Otherwise it’s Heartbreak Hotel.