I am in a perfect position to imagine the setting of the Eel Riot of 1886: a window seat at cafe De Kat in den Wijngaert overlooking Lindengracht, a former canal that was filled in shortly after this tragic event from almost exactly 125 years ago. But sadly I cannot have a ‘perfect Amster-moment’ since the café’s otherwise stellar menu – their tostis are justifiably legendary – offers no eel-based snacks.

As deeply enigmatic tubes, eels are 100-million-year-old slime wonders with authentic phallic mystique. A connoisseur no less than Freud spent a summer as a medical student slicing and dicing hundreds of eels in what proved to be a failed search for their sex organs. And to this day, their sex rites remain shrouded by the bottomless Sargasso, leaving scientists to hypothesize about the actual nature of the orgy of lust that climaxes the eels’ journey of thousands of miles.

Indeed, this mysterious beast generates more questions than answers. How can a decapitated eel still find its way to the nearest water? How can they so effortlessly alternate between salt and fresh water? Is it true that a ‘drinking wine suffused with fragments of its skin might turn a drunkard into a teetotaller’? And why would Sophia Loren, at the height of her loveliness, choose to play an eel factory worker in the film La Donna del Fiume?

But of course the fundamental question remains: why are they so darn tasty? Aristophanes rightly described their gustatory delight as ‘oh my sweetest, my long-awaited desire’. It was certainly easy for eels of yore to suavely slither into Amsterdam’s mass culinary consciousness by allowing themselves to be smoked and then sold from fish stalls. People can say I’m full of brown trout, but I believe that the eel – intent on becoming Amsterdam’s spirit animal by broadening its appeal to politics – allowed itself to get caught up in a local sport popular in the 19th Century called palingtrekken (‘eel pulling’). This game involved dangling a live-eel-on-a-rope over a canal and trying to jerk it off from a wobbly boat below. Our slippery friend ‘won’ whenever a puller failed and fell into the canal.

It was this sport – one that can be argued as the evolutionary missing link between dwarf-tossing and Ajax football – that led to the Eel Riot. By that time the sport had been banned but it continued to be practiced in the Jordaan, then a staunchly working-class district. One day, when the police attempted to break up an illegal game of eel-pulling, the people decided to fight back – not for the right to pull eel, but to live life in less poverty. The army was called in to enforce the peace, with usual tragic results: 26 dead.

The newly united neighbourhood went on to organize peaceful social change. And according to Amsterdam, een lastige stad (‘Amsterdam, An Awkward City’) by JM Fuchs, the eel that sparked it all was later sold in 1913 at an auction for 1.75 guilders before disappearing from view. Let’s take a moment to remember this working-class eel-ro.

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Posted in Uncategorized 9 years, 6 months ago at 12:26 pm.

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