“Thinking about the squirm” was just one memorable phrase in Laurie Taylor’s fascinating interview with Alex Rhys-Taylor, who had just published a paper on Disgust and distinction: the case of the jellied eel. 1 Much was made of the jellied eel as a signifier of the working classes, with an unspoken subtext that it was disgusting only to refined palates. And that prompted me to think about the squirm and recollect my one and only encounter with a jellied eel.
These days, of course, working class foods and the whole cucina povera thing is the height of refinement, especially suitably gussied up. Thirty years ago, that wasn’t so. Bangers and mash was bangers and mash, not farm-fresh minced pork and spices in a natural casing and served on a bed of garlic-laced purée potatoes. Jellied eels were to be had, along with cockles and winkles, only from a barrow parked by Cambridge Circus. And also, uniquely I believe, from a rather wonderful up-market fish restaurant called Sheekey’s a little further down St Martin’s Lane. 2 And it was to Sheekey’s that my editor and I went.
He insisted on a restorative dish of jellied eels for both of us, and I was certainly game to try anything. They arrived, chunks of eel in a soft jelly that glowed, I swear, with a faint green luminescence. Fortunately my editor also insisted that the traditional accompaniment to this feast was a pint or two of Guinness, with the help of which I was able gamely to gag the eel down. And although I returned to Sheekey’s on occasion, I never did try jellied eels again, there or at any of the stalls that were then relatively frequent.
Laurie Taylor and Alex Rhys-Taylor tried to get to the bottom of the whole disgust thing, wrestling manfully with the “epistemological slipperiness” of the dish, as Rhys-Taylor described it. True, jellied eel breaks several category boundaries. The eel is not quite fish, not quite snake. The jelly is not quite liquid, not quite solid. But, pace Mary Douglas, that can’t be it, at least not for me. I cannot pinpoint why I didn’t like them, but I didn’t. My roots were exposed, I guess, but I don’t think it was anything intrinsic to jelly or to eels. I love smoked eel, when I can get it. I also like jellies of all sorts. I relish the combination of savoury food in a jelly, and especially oeufs en gelée. But jellied eel? No thanks.