Tasting Victorian London, One Eel at a Time
“It would probably cost £8 to make an eel pie now,” he said. “It wouldn’t be viable to make one anymore.”
These facts were not known to me when I corralled my sons, climbed to the upper floor of a bus and crossed the river, trekking to the London neighborhood of Southwark. M. Manze is the oldest of the remaining eel houses, with roots going back to Mr. Poole’s grandfather, an Italian named Michele Manze, who immigrated to Britain as a child in 1878 and opened his first shop in 1902. By 1930, the family had 14 eel shops. Today, eel houses have dwindled and are more of a curiosity, good for a photo op for prominent British pols or a cameo in an Elton John video.
Unassuming from the outside, the eel shop we visited sits across the street from a betting parlor and a humble tandoori joint. But it seemed like we were onto something. There was a long queue out its door to get a spot at one of its 11 tables. A round blue sign out front proclaimed M. Manze’s “The Oldest Surviving Eel & Pie Shop in London.”
When we walked inside, the centuries rolled backward. Behind a high counter, food rose up from the kitchen by dumbwaiter: long trays of beef pies and metal pails piled high with mashed potatoes.
“It’s like a Victorian fast food place,” my older son Casey said.
A guy sporting a Tottenham Hotspur jersey was at one table, a British mother in a Lakers cap at another. A large ruddy-faced man in a three-piece suit accented with a yellow hankie was at a third. After briskly consuming a last bite of beef, he got up and began to walk out, nodding to the women behind the counter as he ambled past.
“Awwright ladies,” he said and took his leave.
I approached the counter tentatively.
“Could I get some eel pies?”
“No,” a woman answered somewhat gruffly, and left it at that.
I retreated and looked up. It was then I realized they served “eel & pie,” not eel pie. I was left to choose between jellied or stewed eels, with each plate about $5.50.
My younger son, Eli, did not hesitate. “Beef,” he said, fixating on a beef pie.
Perhaps he’d noticed that all of the locals were eating beef pies, and that perhaps the eel was more a novelty for the bold, the curious, or American ex-pats such as ourselves. I failed to pick up on this until much later, even though the woman behind the counter was providing a stream of unsubtle signals.
“Better have a taste,” she warned us, depositing samples in small bowls. One consisted of large chunks of eel flesh, another had them encased in a clear gelatin. I nibbled the jellied sample. There was certainly no mistaking that it was nautical. I turned toward my sons with resolve. The bus ride to get here had been about 40 minutes: There was no turning back now.
The woman behind the counter sensed what was coming.
“Oh gawd, you’re not going to make them try it, aww you?” she said.
That seemed like an odd thing to say at an eel house. But I handed Casey a bowl. He took a bite of each, recoiled slightly, but held his ground.
“Stewed,” he said.
A heaping plate of clear jelly soon glistened before me, wobbling over eel chunks. Casey’s was just a mound of eels. I’m not sure who had the greater challenge. We picked at our meals delicately, probing like surgeons.
“All of these bones,” Casey said, casting a feral glance toward his brother.
Eli had been enjoying his beef pie and then drew it closer to his chest. Like most younger brothers, he was forever guarding what was his. He tightened his grip on his plate.
Candidly, the beef pie had also attracted my attention.
“Oh no you don’t,” Eli insisted to both of us. “Finish your food.”
Mr. Poole later explained that only about a tenth of his customers actually eat eels, and was unsurprised when I told him that my younger son had refused to try.
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” he said. “You’ve got to be pretty open-minded to try eel for the first time.”
I can’t honestly say that Casey and I cleaned our plates, but we ate more eel than we likely will in the rest of our lifetimes. There was a sense of accomplishment. When that passed, we ordered a beef pie for ourselves and rapidly reduced it to crumbs. It became clear why everyone else was ordering the beef pies.
Slightly overwhelmed with what had just taken place, we set aside our plates and took a breath.
“That was …” Casey said, “peculiar.”
We bought some trophy T-shirts, because we deserved to commemorate this in cotton across our chests. We had learned an important eel-house pro tip. Taste the eel. Stick with the beef.
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