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October 12, 2006

Above: Street fair in Sassarai, Sardinia.

Eel -- or not?

Confession: In our household it's not the male who is the TV channel flipper. (Besides, he was cooking dinner.) One night last month I was giving each station three seconds to convince me there was something worth watching before I cruised up another notch. That evening I didn't get past 13.

It wasn't the panel of familiar faces answering phones during KEET's September pledge drive that stopped me. It was the tail end of a show called "California's Gold." Host Huell Howser was at the mouth of the Klamath River with two Yurok men, learning how to properly barbecue salmon. A carved redwood stick is threaded in and out of the fillet muscle without breaking through the salmon skin. The end of each stake is then pounded into the sand facing a roaring fire purposefully built up against the boulders to reflect the heat. I was just beginning to salivate (maybe it was the cooking odors from the next room) when one man bent over, grabbed a slimy black eel and tossed it on the scorching rocks in the fire.

Right: "The caterpillar" is a special order sushi at The Ritz.

Barbecued eel. Yum! I was instantly transported back to springtime in Sardinia. For our 40th anniversary this year, my husband and I rented an apartment in Alghero, a fishing and tourist city the size of Eureka, on Sardinia's northwest coast. In the mornings after cappuccino, we took Italian language lessons. The rest of the time we read, swam, explored on bicycles, shopped and immersed ourselves in the local culture -- but most importantly, we ate very well every day. It was a joy to find a new deli or family-run restaurant and it was equally a pleasure to shop at the daily vegetable market and then cross the street to see what all the fish vendors had each day. (The wine of the region is also wonderful and inexpensive.)

One weekend we traveled by train to Sassarai, one of the largest cities on the island. In May, there is an annual festival and parade with people in beautiful costumes singing, dancing and carrying food of their regions to show off. After the parade, there was a street fair throughout the downtown with food booths. In fact, one entire block on both sides held just barbecue vendors with an infinite variety of the freshest fish and stuffed sausages and pig and chicken and -- O.K. -- horsemeat, a Sardinian specialty. That's where I saw one merchant coiling live eels into cinnamon bun shapes, shoving the skewers through them and plopping them on the fire with tails and heads still flailing.

Left: Unagi "don," or bowl of smoked eel topped with crispy skin.

I passed on the delicacy that day only because I was already stuffed and had a long hike back to the train station, but judging from the enthusiastic crowds, the barbecued eels were a hit.

We've lived on the North Coast for almost 35 years yet I had never known Native Americans also consider barbecued eel a delicacy.

"They taste great," said Andre Cramblit, a Karuk who works for the Northern California Indian Development Council in Eureka. "They're rich, fatty, crisp on the outside. We throw the heads back in to crisp them up, but only the men get to eat them. Last year my nephew -- he's 2 -- walked around sucking on the head until there was nothing left but a ring of teeth."

I told him I loved smoked eel, too. In fact it's on one of my favorite sushis at The Ritz in Old Town Eureka. Chef Machan (his real name is Mashuri, born in Indonesia and trained in Japan) makes something not on the regular menu called "The Caterpillar." It is a California roll (cucumber, avocado and shrimp) draped with more ripe avocado, hot barbecued eel and drizzled with a sweetish soy sauce.

Hold on, Cramblit warned. Japanese freshwater eels (called unagi) and the European eels we encountered in Sardinia are real eels. "They have bones and a jaw," he said.

Historic eel fishing photoWhat we call eels on the West Coast are really lampreys, "ancient jawless fish that superficially resemble eels, but are not related," according to the Center for Biological Diversity website. Wikipedia gets even more graphic: "A lamprey is a jawless fish with a toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth, with which most species bore into the flesh of the other fish to suck their blood. In zoology, lampreys are often not considered to be true fish because of their vastly different morphology and physiology."

"I love eels," said Samantha Sylvia, who works in administration at the Yurok Headquarters in Klamath. (Of course, she means "lampreys.")

"My dad is very well known for eeling. He is so fast. He's an expert. He takes a knife and fork and cleans them, and rips the cord out. ... It only takes a few minutes and he flattens them out to cook. Everyone comes to him for advice."

Historic eel fishing by wooden hook near
the mouth of the Klamath. Photo by Irenia Quitquit.

Sylvia's dad -- Eugene Coleman, a Karuk from Orleans -- uses traditional eel baskets to gather eels in deep holes in the upper Klamath River. Her boyfriend, she said, uses hooks to snag the critters and then throws them up on land to a partner to bag in a gunny sack.

"He carves his hooks out of wood that he decorates with Indian designs," she said.

Claire Reynolds, director of community outreach for KEET-TV, said beginning Sunday, Nov. 19, the station will begin airing a new five-part series called "Seasoned with Spirit."

"It's a culinary celebration of America's bounty combining Native American history and culture with delicious, healthy recipes inspired by indigenous foods," she said. The series -- hosted by Barrett Oden, a renowned Native American chef, food historian and lecturer from the Potawatomi Nation -- has one episode that I'll be sure to watch, Nov. 26 at 7:30 and 11:30 p.m., titled "Bounty of the River's Edge," featuring the Yurok tribe.

The menu for the show includes "alderwood smoked salmon, dried sirfish and eels, along with an amazing sturgeon egg (caviar) bread."


your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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