Elver season came early last month after millions of wormlike baby eels were spawned in the Sargasso Sea and slithered up North American and European freshwater inlets, ostensibly to live out their adult lives before returning to complete the cycle. That's unless they were netted by the Maine fishermen who sell them off to Asian buyers, contributing to the depletion of yet another desperately overfished species.
That's the awful reason they're fetching upwards of $2,000 a pound, and why, even if you could find and afford a plate of Basque-style angulas a la Bilbaina, you should take a pass.
So I did a double take strolling down the canned fish aisle in Cermak Produce when I spied a package of Goya brand "Eelbroods of Surimi." Sounds like a house of Balon Greyjoy's bannermen, but the photograph was unmistakable and arresting: hundreds of grayish vermicelli squirming in a terra cotta dish. But 3.88 ounces of elvers for $4.29? Impossible.
That makes more sense. Yes, these are mock angulas, imported from Spain, and formed from "fish meat*," water, egg white, starch, sunflower oil, salt, "eel natural aroma," and . . . ink. There's a slate-colored line running down the length of each little worm for that natural eel-like aspect. I'd like to see the assembly line where these are spawned. Perhaps it's something on the order of the facility that produced Little Lisa's Slurry, or the piscine version of pink slime.
But they taste far more appealing than that. They're packed in cayenne- and garlic-infused olive oil, and once they're given a quick saute they're a bit like fishy overcooked angel-hair pasta. Supply problems inspire all sorts of dubious imitations, but these at least have the endorsement of Jonathan Gold, who says they taste pretty much like the real thing.
*Sh-sh-sh. An eel is a fish.