Reinventing the Eel

Aristotle thought they were born out of mud. A young Sigmund Freud dedicated himself to finding their testicles (spoiler alert, he failed). And a legendary Danish marine biologist spent 18 years and his wife's fortune sailing around the Atlantic Ocean in search of their birthplace. The creature that tormented all of them? It was the eel, perhaps the most mysterious fish in the world—and one of the most expensive per pound. So why are tiny, transparent, worm-like baby eels worth so much? Why have eels remained so mysterious, despite scientists' best efforts? And how has one pioneering farmer in Maine started raising eels sustainably, despite the species' endangered status? All that this episode, plus a nighttime fishing trip, suitcases full of cash, and a compelling argument that when it comes to the American Thanksgiving dinner plate, we should consider ditching the turkey—and replacing it with eel.

More than a hundred thousand baby eels—known as elvers or glass eels—swim in a tank at the American Unagi facility in Waldoboro, Maine. These eels will live at the facility for between 7 months and 3 years, until they reach a harvest-ready size. Photo by Claudia Geib.

Sara Rademaker, founder of American Unagi, gives Nicky and Cynthia a sniff of the food that she gives her eels. (And, of course, they couldn't resist tasting it as well. Tasted kind of like anchovies.) Photo by Claudia Geib.

Episode Notes

Patrick Svensson

Patrick Svensson is the author of The Book of Eels, a New York Times bestseller that explores humanity's long fascination with the eel, alongside the author's personal history catching and eating eels in his native Sweden. He is also an arts and culture journalist for the newspaper Sydsvenskan.

Our friends at Eater visited American Unagi last year, and got a chance to see some of the adult eels Sara was raising in her pilot facility. You can read more about their visit at the Eater website.

Sara Rademaker

Sara Rademaker is the founder of American Unagi in Waldoboro, Maine—the only commercial eel farm in North America. From humble beginnings in Sara's basement, American Unagi is now completing a facility capable of raising more than a million eels per year to adulthood. You can order whole and smoked eel to try for yourself through the American Unagi online store.

Samples of American Unagi's delicious whole (left) and canned (right) smoked eel that we sampled at the facility. Photos by Claudia Geib.

Pat Bryant and John Taylor

Eel fishers Pat Bryant and John Taylor were indispensable sources of information about the history of eel fishing in Maine, and John Taylor served as our guide to spotting (and catching!) wild eels at Pemaquid Falls.

On the hunt for wild eels at Pemaquid Falls: left, Nicky and Cynthia look for eels with the help of fisherman John Taylor; center, Nicky holds one tiny glass eel in her palm; right, hundreds of glass eels swim upstream, illuminated by John's flashlight. Photos by Claudia Geib.


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