Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I love critters. I own a big-boned cat named Mimi. When the baby alien pops out of John Hurt’s chest, while the rest of the movie audience is screaming and puking up their Jujubes I’m saying “Cool! He’s so cute!” I wore my underwear at half-mast for days after Steve Irwin was slain by a rogue stingray. I’m madly in love with Polly Purebred in the Underdog cartoon. You get the idea – I love critters. So it was something of a shock to me the other day to find a critter I don’t particularly like.

I was looking up something else entirely when – okay, I’ll tell you. I was trying to find out if a group of eels was called a congeries or not. The answer is here, along with a lot of other interesting stuff. But along the way, I discovered vinegar eels. I was intrigued by the name: in my day, I’ve fed moray eels and seen other kinds of eels while diving, but I had never heard of vinegar eels. So I googled their ass.

It turns out that vinegar eels are not really eels at all, but tiny nematodes. I quote here from Wayne Schmidt’s Vinegar Eels Page:[1]

“Vinegar eels are actually named turbatrix aceti and belong to the [phylum] nematoda (nematodes). They are free-living, non-parasitic unsegmented roundworms and were discovered by Borellus in 1656. They eat bacteria and fungi that [grow] in unpasteurized vinegar solutions.”

See how interesting they are? I wonder what “free-living” means. Are there roundworms that are constrained by a code of ethics? Does this make the free-living vinegar eels inherently evil? At least they are non-parasitic, which means you don’t have to worry about them bumming cigarettes from you or not chipping in on the restaurant tab.

As I read more about vinegar eels, I found out that they are mostly grown by people who breed tropical fish. The vinegar eels are fed to the fry. Apparently they are desirable fry food because of their small size. Because of this, the Internet abounds with fish fanciers’ web pages explaining how to raise vinegar eels. Wayne, above, seems to have the most complete vinegar eel page, at least that I found. (This seems a somewhat dubious distinction.) I especially like the following headline on his web site: “New!!! Eel clumping picture! That is something to get excited about.

Another guy who knows his vinegar eels is the Vinegar Man. No shit. His web site is called, you guessed it, Now, if you go to this site please make sure you don’t a mouthful of hot coffee (this means you, kat). You were warned. Apparently, the Vinegar Man “travels the world studying and teaching about vinegar.” I bet it’s just a ploy he uses to pick up chicks. At any rate, the Vinegar Man has a nice photograph of vinegar eels in vinegar. Below the photo, VM says “These are vinegar eels. They help make better vinegar by eating the dead vinegar bacteria. Unless you see your salad moving on your plate, they are not a problem.” No comment; Vinegar Man nailed it.

I’m really happy I went to this web site. Not only did I learn a lot about vinegar (which I’ll be more than happy to discuss with you for hours and hours the next time you invite me to a cocktail party), I also discovered that apparently vinegar is quite the little breeding ground for critters – as VM puts it, the Vinegar Zoo. This zoo is populated by:

  • Vinegar bacteria, that transform my carefully-hoarded bottles of cabernet sauvignon into something barely fit for salad dressing.
  • The vinegar fly, the photo of which I’m going to add to my anti-horniness kit.
  • Vinegar mites, which “live in the wood of vinegar barrels”. Makes you wonder where they lived before man invented vinegar, or barrels for that matter.
  • And of course, our friends the vinegar eels.

Before we say goodbye to the Vinegar Man, I would like to point out that on the home page of his web site he has two links that frightened me: Vinegar Art and The Vinegar Museum. I did not have the courage to follow these links. If you do, and manage to survive the experience, please leave a comment and tell me if it’s safe to visit them.

In continuing my quest for vinegar eel knowledge, I came upon another interesting site called, cryptically, FDA/ORA CPG 7109.22. This page deals with vinegar law. One of the highlights is a reference to U.S. v. 95 Barrels, More of Less, Alleged Apple Cider Vinegar, (265 U.S. 438, 1924), heard by the Supreme Court. The case seems to be about vinegar counterfeiting. Dare I suppose that “more of less” is actually a typo for “more or less”? Or is it a Zen koan, hidden in the title of a U.S. Supreme Court case?

A more interesting part of the above page is entitled “II. ADULTERATION WITH VINEGAR EELS.” At first glance I thought this dealt with cheating on your wife with nematodes, but it turns out I was wrong. Quoting the page, “The finding of vinegar eels in finished product would be considered objectionable and would render the finished product adulterated within the meaning of 402(a)(3).” It seems someone is not as enchanted with vinegar eels as Wayne is. In fact, the FDA minces no words about our little buddies: “…in that it consists in part of a filthy substance by reason of the presence therein of vinegar eels.”

So it would seem that your salad won’t be moving, after all. At least, it won’t if the vinegar crossed a state line and the vinegar cops are doing their job. I hope these law enforcement officers are more diligent than their fellows the yeast cops. If they aren’t, expect every third bottle of vinegar to contain a “filthy substance”.

To wrap up our visit to the land of vinegar eels, I have to let you know that I found a downloadable eels ringtone for your cellular phone. Who knew they made noises? I thought maybe they just gurgled once in a while. So the next time you’re sitting in the airport and your cell phone rings, the people around you are going to totally freak out and think they’re about to be attacked by a congeries of eels. Be sure and take pictures; I’ll post them.

- Hulles

[1] It’s a little disturbing that apparently someone must be even lonelier than I am.

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