After centuries as an iconic Cockney ingredient, the always slithering, often jellied eel has fallen on hard times.
A dark, heavy sky full of summer rain hangs over the back yard of Cooke’s Pie and Eel shop in Hoxton market.
Surrounded and overlooked by grim, low-rise council estates, this is the buffer zone between the East End of Hackney and the unspeakable riches of the City of London.
Joe Cooke, a big man who swears like a docker, is fumbling for eels in a deep plastic tank that burbles and splashes in front of him. Expertly tipping the slithering prey into a bucket, he turns to sharpen a long, wicked knife on a rasping steel. In the bucket, a reflection of the sky. Six or seven eels turn over each other desperately thrashing: trying to bury themselves. A foaming sea of slime and muscular shiny flesh.
Big drops of rain spot the paving stones of the yard. The eels thrash and whip furiously. One makes it to the blood-stained chopping board and Joe’s fingers caress it. Something strange happens. The creature is soothed, almost hypnotized. It lays straight, delighting in itself, thinking of a faraway sea, almost asleep, forgetful of its fate. A mercy.
Joe’s long knife takes off the head and expertly slits the belly removing the guts in one long slice. Globs of dark flesh and innards fleck his thick fingers. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid on my Dad’s stall,” says Joe. “Beautiful creatures, ain’t they?”
EELS, PIE, AND MASH WAS ONCE THE STAPLE DIET OF THE LONDON POOR
Cooke’s is one of the last palaces of eels and pie and mash, once the staple diet of the London poor. Clean. Tidy. Respectable. Victorian. White tiled walls. Sawdust on the floor. Wooden benches. Honest food, honest people. An old Roberts radio plays Dire Straits and all is well in the world. On the wall, a clipping from the Hackney Gazette recounts David Beckham’s visit to the East End to eat his beloved jellied eels. He came here.
Rain streaks at the windows and Joe Cooke emerges from slaughter with a blue and white striped apron now dusted with flour from the kitchen.
The busy lunch service is going to start. Johnnie, a patient, rake-thin baker with homemade tattoos up his sinewy arms, carries a bucket of freshly mashed potatoes to an empty vat on the long counter by the door. Soon a procession of elderly ladies and thickset young men with shaven heads will come trooping in demanding to be fed.
Eels have long been a staple part of London food and were once synonymous with the city and its people. In a city dominated and bisected by the River Thames, the eel’s popularity was that it was plentiful, cheap, and when most meat or fish had to be preserved in salt, eel could be kept alive in puddles of water. The Victorian curate Reverend David Badham reports in his ‘Prose Halieutics; Or Ancient and modern fish tattle’, published in 1854, that “London steams and teems with eels alive and stewed. For one halfpenny a man of the million may fill his stomach with six or seven long pieces and wash them down with a sip of the glutinous liquid they are stewed in.”
EEL BUCKETS WERE SUCH A NUISANCE TO RIVER TRAFFIC THAT THEY WERE BANNED BY THE TERMS OF THE MAGNA CARTA
The humble eels’ indulgent, meaty flesh was sought all along the river and traditionally caught by line or by eel-bucks—wicker or willow baskets tapered at one end thrown across the Thames in a line in great numbers. The bucks were so prevalent and a nuisance to river traffic that they were banned by the terms of the Magna Carta of 1215—not that anyone took any notice, and the practice continued until the early twentieth century.
Such was the demand that eels were brought over from The Netherlands in great quantities by Dutch eel schuyts and these were commended for helping feed London during the Great Fire in 1666. Although these were seen as inferior to domestic eels, the British government rewarded the Dutch for their charity by Act of Parliament in 1699 granting them exclusive rights to sell eels from their barges on the Thames.
The first recorded eel and mash shop was Henry Blanchard’s at 101 Union Street in Southwark in 1844. By 1874, there were 33 stores in operation. But as they flourished, the Thames became increasingly polluted and could no longer sustain significant eel populations. The Dutch ships stopped further upstream to prevent their cargo being spoiled. By 1878, British Freshwater Fishes reported that “the eel-fare… no longer exists, on account of the filthy water around London”.
The decline continued steadily over the years. Alison Debney, from the Zoological Society of London, is the project manager for The Thames Eel Monitoring project. She recounts in a rather nervous, soft voice that since 1980, stock levels of European eels have dwindled by more than 95%. In 2009, the 174-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species started to restrict the sale of eel due to the drastic fall.
There are multiple causes. “One is the barrier to migration—so lack of habitat,” explains Debney. “We’ve drained a lot of our rivers, and we have built big flood defenses on them so that eels aren’t able to access them. There are changes to ocean migratory currents; there’s also an eel parasite (Anguilla Crassicla) that seems to affect their swim bladder – the thing that they use to change their position in the water.” Pollution, levels of salination in water, and global warming may also play a part.
Debney’s project uses ‘citizen scientists’ in the Thames to set up traps and monitor numbers twice a week in order to work out why there has been such a marked decline in European rivers of the eel. “Eels have always been underappreciated,” says Debney. “But they are a critical part of the eco-system. The birds that everybody loves—like the Bittern or the Grebe—they feed on eels. Without that lifecycle we’d lose a huge part of the ecosystems that have been there for millions of years.”
Because of their increased scarcity, eels are becoming very expensive. Back in the East End, the landmark Tubby Isaacs’ World Famous Jellied Eel Stall closed in 2013 after 94 years in business. “We’re paying a fortune for them at the moment” says the owner Paul Simpson, who now operates at the Walthanstow market. “You’re looking about £10 a kilo I suppose—you need 2.5 kilos for a bowl and that’s without the cost of guys killing them, cutting them up, the labor, the wages.”
But rise in cost isn’t the only reason for their decline in popularity. He adds that the way eels are presented could also be unappealing to the younger generations. “People queue up for sushi don’t they? I think it’s the jelly that puts them off – see, in the old days, people would boil their eels, eat them and what was left over would form the jelly. Before fridges you could keep them like that for a couple of days.”
THAT’S THE THING—PEOPLE JUST WON’T TRY EELS ANYMORE
Back in South London, though a steady Saturday stream of customers comes through the door of Manze’s Eel and Pie House in Peckham, the owner Graham Poole concedes with a sigh that Manze’s hasn’t butchered and cooked their own eels for a couple of decades. He has developed a mail-order business that keeps Manze’s busy when the foot traffic is slow. “We get emails at all times of night—after people have had a few drinks… old East Enders that have moved out, reminisce—they want their eels and pies.” They want their memories.
Indeed, today the eel and pie shops are like a beacon to a romantic and (relatively) unchanged white working class culture, whose thread passes unseen through generations that have worn the pavements outside Manze’s smooth. Lisa, serving behind the Peckham shop counter, tells me that they probably only sell 8-10 portions of eels (either stewed or jellied) here a day. “Most people come in for pie and mash and that’s it… it’s the oldies that have it”—like Sharon and Raymond Shilling, both in their sixties. They no longer live in London but come to the Manze’s on Tower Bridge Road once in a while to reminisce. Sharon hates pastry so just eats the eels and her husband can’t stand eels so he has the pies. She runs her fingers over the original Victorian green and white tiles lovingly. “Our kids like the pies but they won’t touch the eels…” says Sharon. “That’s the thing—people just won’t try them anymore.”
Waves of immigration have changed the face of inner city Britain and perhaps for the first time, working class identity—the Cockney identity—is a genuine melting pot. Plenty of young Asians and West Indians would call themselves Cockney now. So too would white working class communities stuck between the ideals of the 1980s’ Thatcherite generation that bought their own council houses (or fled to the suburbs) and a desperately poor underclass demonized as violent, feral, and work-shy criminals in the popular press. It is for both of these groups that eel-eating is emblematic of what they were and also who they are now. It is no coincidence that Millwall football fans—a byword for violence in the 1970s and 1980s—still taunt the opposition supporters with: “Let ‘em come, let ‘em come … We’ve had our jellied eels and our glass of beer…”
But back in Hoxton, as I sit with Joe Cooke’s wife Kim in front of another bowl of eels, we’re interrupted by a young man with a trendy haircut who makes the mistake of asking for a knife. “Fuck off! Who put you up to that?” booms Joe from the side, laughing. Old Cockneys know that pies are eaten with spoons and forks only. The man sheepishly retreats, but it’s a telling anecdote. As certain parts of the East End gentrify, the trend of “nose-to-tail” eating is growing in the UK. Now, every London restaurant wants to serve tripe or trotters—perhaps this newcomer asking for a knife is where the future of the jellied eel lies.