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Eel on the Menu

Fish was the most important resource for the inhabitants of New France. Eel, in particular, was eaten in large quantities for hundreds of years. From 1960 to 1990, its popularity waned. Today, however, it has regained favour with food lovers.

Two men grilling eel on a home-made barbecue next to the river.

Georges-Henri Lizotte cooks eels on barbecue for his friends and family, 2015

Eel was a healthy food for the inhabitants of New France. According to historians, it was even their favourite fish. Here is what Simon Denys had to say about eel in 1651:

In this country, this fish replaces beef and people eat it all year round without growing tired of it.

Eel began to be eaten less and less in the second half of the 20th century.

Several reasons have been given to explain this situation, although none of them has been confirmed.

  • This fish was not very well known. For example, it was mistakenly described as a scavenger or as being dangerous by people who confused it with the electric eel that lives in the Amazon or Orinoco river basins.
  • It used to be associated with days of abstinence (meatless Fridays, Lent) and snakes.
  • It was prepared for many years using very rudimentary recipes.

Unfortunately, several of these notions persisted for a long time.

Skinning eel

In front of an old house, a woman holds an eel by the head while another woman removes the skin by pulling on it. Two young girls watch the women as they work, while three cats hover nearby. Black and white photograph.

Skinning eel, circa 1930

It was common to see eels being skinned in villages along the St. Lawrence River in the fall. One method involved two people, who began by cutting the skin at the base of the animal’s head. One person then held the eel by the head while the other held the skin and simply pulled on it.

It was also possible to skin an eel single-handedly. The person first had to cut the skin at the base of the animal’s head and on the abdomen. They then pulled on the skin with their right hand while holding the head of the eel with their left hand, often in a piece of newspaper.

Smoked eel has been enjoyed by food lovers down through the ages.

Grandpa Smoked Eel in a Funny Way – View this video with a transcript

The popularity of eel has grown in recent years thanks to several initiatives by eel fishers.