Modern slang is full of gastronomical synonyms for money: dough, bread, cabbage, cake. Notably absent from the long list, however, is a foodstuff that once actually functioned as a form of currency: the humble eel, a traditional English delicacy often served in jellied form. Nine centuries ago or thereabouts, eels were more than just a form of sustenance for the inhabitants of post-Norman Conquest England; they were a way for vassals to pay their lords. The authors of 1906’s The History and Law of Fisheries explain:
Eels at this period were considered the choice fish, and throughout Domesday Book we continually find this rent of eels as rent of fisheries, e.g. Evreham (Bucks), “De iiij piscariis 1,500 eels et pisces per diem veneris ad opus prepositi ville“; Medmenham (Bucks), “De piscar mille anguillas,” and in this county the rent or value of all the seventeen fisheries is returned in eels. The case is the same in Cambrideshire. In Hertfordshire all the rents or values of fisheries are in eels…In Kent we find rents in eels and rents in money for fisheries…In Northamtonshire there is no mention of any fishery, but many returns of mills valued and money and eel rents.
English waterways no longer teems with eels, of course, an environmental mystery that greatly upsets conservationists. But it is not scarcity that seems to have diminished the eel’s central position in the English diet (not to mention English economics); there are plenty of farmed eels to be imported from Southeast Asia, and the the eels that are harvested domestically are mostly exported to the European continent. The eel’s value to England declined because tastes changed, so that the slithery fish is now considered somewhat revolting by the nation’s majority.
Why, then, do food habits—and even food taboos—change so drastically over the centuries? It’s no secret that our affinity for certain foods over others doesn’t have much grounding in logic. But we do drift toward foods that we regard as commensurate with our inflated image of ourselves. Eels were the mainstay of England during some truly rough times; once prosperity arrived with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, people no longer wanted to eat what had sustained their less fortunate forbears. Beefsteaks were the right food for the growing bourgeoisie, and so the flesh of cows became the nation’s go-to dish.
One must wonder, though, whether the staple meats of today will someday be looked back upon in the same manner that most English now regard the eel. Will hamburgers be reduced to carnival fare, much like jellied eels in Brighton?
(Image via sallysue)