Friday, May 22, 2009

Olympic Swimming Eels

Angela Pace is a household name in Columbus, Ohio. She came to dinner every evening in the form of a top rated news anchor. She and her CBS crew were covering the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and the hometown connection brought us together. Well, it was slightly more than a hometown coincidence connection in those pre-Google search days. My sister had a baby during the winter holidays in '97, and my Mom jumped on a plane to Florida to hone her Grandma role. She happened to buckle in next to Angela Pace. The leg was probably just over an hour, but it was enough flight time to cover, "I have a daughter in Japan," and "I'm going to Japan in February." Cards were exchanged, and the meet up was born, along with my nephew.

Urawa, Saitama, wasn't exactly in the Games' neighborhood, but it was just a bullet train ride way to Nagano. Angela was looking for me to be her inside scoop story, a little hometown fluff of an human interest angle to give Columbus viewers a break from countless preliminary rounds of curling. She touched base when she did her first rounds of filming on location in Nagano. This gave me enough time to plan our day out of filming together, which was enough time for my staff to flex their hosts with the most muscles and bring my amateur plan of a visit to an Olympic level. She suggested lunch and then a walk through town a la day in the life of an Ohioan in Japan. Sushi bar was one brainstorm brought to the table: a rotating sushi bar, but not just a conveyor belt of raw fish lapping you at your meal, rather, a running stream of water that carried the mini rafts of bit sized sushi samples lined up in twos.

Before I went too far executing this plan, I casually asked Angela if she had "any allergies or food aversions," and before I get out, "that I should know about," she barked back, "NOTHING RAW!" I like a journalist that can speak her mind. Sushi idea scrapped, the section chief decides that grilled eel is a local delicacy, caught in the river that runs through the city. The phone call went up to the mayor's office and the finest grilled eel restaurant overlooking the river was set in stone in our synchronized day planners.

Once the eel is grilled, sauced up and served over rice, it looks like it could pass for steak, or, at least in the far fetched way people describe any exotic dish they try as, "it tastes like chicken." Angela and her camera man came with their Olympic good sport badges on, game for an adventure. She hadn't sampled a true Japaneses slice of life, or slice of fish for that matter, since she arrived in Japan the previous week. She had just done some spots tourist destinations in Nagano and reported on the famous hot spring, Jigokudani, known for the snow monkeys that come down from the mountains to dip in the outdoor hot spring baths shoulder to shoulder with the hotel guests. It is a fantastic place, despite the translation of "Hell's Valley." Really, it's not as creepy as it sounds, since, after all, the monkeys are clean. Having stayed at the inn a few the year before, I asked about her experience. She didn't really get to experience the full Japanese experience since Martha Stewart and her crew were monopolizing the site during her air time. She summed up her visit like a true investigative reporter, "Martha Stewart is a just a bitch." Perhaps with that discovery she uncovered some meaning behind the name, Hell's Valley. Nevertheless, I thought I wanted to fill the void of what did not pan out as a cultural visit, or even an etiquette visit on Martha's end, in Nagano.

The restaurant staff was ready for us, and the kimono clad crew of hosts and servers greeted us at the door. They took our shoes, provided slippers, and escorted us into the restaurant to tour the museum type halls of various pictures of eel catches throughout the decades, spanning the history of the restaurant. It's really hard to fake, "oohs and aahs" when it comes to reacting to fish you have never seen before, but the guests' real verbal reactions were around the corner in the kitchen.

The head chef and owner invited us into the kitchen, which was lined with rows of barrels containing rapidly swimming, squirming, and splashing eels. This is exactly why Americans generally prefer not to know what they're eating before they try it. The chef proudly asked Angela to choose her fish. With the camera rolling, she cautiously advanced to the barrel and let out the shriek heard round the world. The snake-like eels were circling, and she was not about to pull one out with her bare hands. Inside, I was wishing we could make Martha Stewart do that part. I'd love to know the Miss Manners way to grab a live eel from its simulated habitat and toss it on the fire pit.

The chef and owner cued in that she was not going to fish for her own lunch, so they pulled out the designated catch of the day for each of us. The shrieking escalated for each of us as he systematically karate chopped the heads off of each one with the butcher knife he wore in his samurai style belt harness. We left the kitchen crew to do their thing and the kimono clad duo lead us to our private room in the restaurant to start us on a recognizable first course of salad. The main dish made its entrance, with the head chef . I don't think it was because he still was armed with the samurai eel swords, but she took a bite, lit up and in a I'm even surprised myself honesty, she declared, "it's delicious." The relief and joy in the room was electric and the staff beamed with the same twinkle that we'd witness on the podiums over the next 2 weeks throughout the Games. That same sparkle took a personal shine when I heard from friends and family back home that they saw clips of the feature on the news. Even if it got second billing to the luge, it was a treat to be a part of Angela's taste of the Olympic spirit, sauteed under her first (and probably last?) grilled eel.


  1. Is this footage on youtube? Gotta see it!

  2. Allison, I didn't even think of Youtube! There is news (network) footage. I think my brother in law taped it too. (I'll look into that!) I forgot, but am reminded why, you never liked fish.