During the Depression in the 1930s, too many people in the United States died of hunger. Millions of families were saved from this fate by getting jobs with the Works Project Administration (WPA). These were public works job projects that built schools, post offices, dams, city streets and other needed construction. As Richard D. Neill remembers, families found inventive ways to feed their children.

Fried eels, please

Recently I had the misfortune of catching pneumonia. However, I was lucky to have a team of professional doctors and nurses take care of me at the Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital on the South Jersey cape.

While in the hospital I was on a liquid diet, Jell-O, broth, Jell-O, broth, Jell-O, broth. Ugh. That gets old quick. So there was nothing to do but lay in my hospital bed and dream of food and better times.

My mind drifted off to when I was growing up in Anglesea, N.J. They were long cold, hungry winters. My father was on WPA and was paid in script money that nobody wanted. You had to go down to City Hall and stand in line for cornmeal mush. It seemed that our family was the poorest of the poor.

So it was a real treat when my big brother and bunch of other guys would go out on the frozen backwaters, chop holes in the ice and spear eels.

My brother would bring home a whole basket of them. I would help skin them. First we would gut them; then cut their head almost off, leaving just the skin with the head connected to it. Then with one hand we’d hold the head and with the other hand work a thumb between the flesh and the skin of the cut end.

Of course everything is slippery and slimy so you really have to clamp down hard with the thumb. Then with one long pull the skin comes off.

I used to like to watch my mom cut the eels up into 4-inch pieces, sprinkle salt on them and throw them in the frying pan with the eels still squirming.

With six sisters and four brothers, food was usually portioned out. But there were lots and lots of eels, so we could just eat and eat and eat the delicious meat from the single bone that ran down the center of the eel.

I am out of the hospital now and at home recuperating. I am on a restricted diet and still thinking about a good meal. I sure would like to have some fried eels like my mom used to make.

— Richard D. Neill
Cape May Court House, N.J.