A Fine Prize
by Excel Aunt
In Anne Shirley's estimation, it was a terrible waste of a sunny day to be stuck inside at a church fundraiser. Spring had officially arrived a few weeks ago when the crocus bulbs of Marilla Cuthbert's flower-bed braved the snow first. But today was the first day actually warm enough to wake the rest of slumbering nature. The stark grays and whites of February and March would soon be replaced with shiny greens and colorful floral pops as snow drifts melted into sheets of nourishing water. Anne's bones ached to skip into the forest and shake out the dregs of winter. Her dance of spring reawakening involved a swing of her simple straw hat and releasing her long red hair from the carefully plaited braids.
But no! Not today! Such frolic would have to be postponed.
Today the young, single ladies of the Avonlea church were asked to submit anonymously a dish that the young men of the church would buy at auction. It was Mrs. Allen's scheme to raise money for the Sunday School. Once all the plates were sold, the chef would then present her dish to the buyer and offer her company as the buyer enjoyed their meal. Anne suspected this type of fundraiser might be more enjoyable in a big city, where you could find a variety of cuisine. Avonlea was hardly an epicurean treasure chest of ethnic and cultural delights. She suspected that all the plates would be pretty much the same.
Anne and Diana spent all of March thinking and talking about what they would make for the April auction. All the young ladies saw this as a chance to showcase their skills with a pot, pan and a slab of meat for any would be, future husbands in attendance. Anne made it clear to Diana she did not care for the forced interaction between boys and girls. Diana shook her head in disagreement. When else would she have the chance to prove herself capable in a kitchen?
Diana's menu was a rather typical fare as a result. Chicken legs, coated with flour batter and fried up in lard, served with potatoes and rhubarb pie. It was just the type of dinner a farmer would ask for after a long morning in the fields. Diana embraced the chance to advertise herself as a woman of the 19th century.
Anne needed a different route. She didn't want to make a typical dinner. And she definitely didn't want to make a dinner that advertised herself as a good wife. She'd make a meal; she'd make it delicious, but she wanted her menu to tell any young man even thinking of her in that context to approach with care.
Anne wrote to Miss Josephine Barry about their fundraiser and not only did Miss Barry send five dollars, she also sent Anne a recipe that was once one of her favorites. A recipe that promised to be easy to make, easy on the budget and also, a tad scary to look at. It was a recipe for spitched-eel.
"No, I couldn't," Anne thought as she read through the ingredients. Marilla had everything in her pantry except the eel. "Or could I?" Anne smiled as she thought, Yes, I think I will. There was more to a woman than her cooking, just as there was more to a man than his ability to eat.
Matthew claimed there were no shortages of eels in the rivers and sure enough, one morning after caring for the livestock he went out and trapped a few for Anne. He even butchered them for her and tried a few of her early attempts at the recipe. Marilla bore up as best she could, relinquishing cookery lessons to Matthew. She had to take off to Mrs. Lynde's porch as Anne and Matthew infused the oily scent of that slimy fish into her otherwise squeaky clean kitchen.
It was due to Marilla's visits and lamentations to Mrs. Lynde that word spread among the Avonlea adults what Anne was up to.
Mr. Blythe overheard two women speaking in a gossipy manner about the upcoming fundraiser when picking up his seed order at Blair's. He wouldn't have paid attention to the women at all, but he caught Marilla's name in the middle of their discourse which caused him to listen. News from Green Gables interested him for new reasons. His son, Gilbert, had taken a shining to the Cuthbert's ward, a red-headed lass known as Anne Shirley. Not that Mr. Blythe was exactly eavesdropping on the gossipy women, they weren't being secretive. He could load his wagon and listen at the same time just fine.
Mrs. Pye thought it disgraceful that any young lady should introduce something so visually unappealing as spitched-eel to their church. "I've seen many a dead snake and eel and I'm telling you, no way did I ever think such a carcass would look good next to my potatoes. Mutton is the way to go. Mutton with potatoes. Delicious island food, worthy of a Scotsman."
Mrs. Harman Andrews agreed with Mrs. Pye, "My Jane is so much more sensible. She's also going to make what men like. You'll see how far this meal will get Anne, a teacher's degree and nothing more."
And then the two women chortled away leaving John Blythe scratching his head. He didn't know what was so funny. Eel was delicious.
"And here we have a plate of. . ." Mr. Bell's eyebrow popped into his receding hairline. "Is this right?" The auctioneer looked at Mrs. Allen who came over to read what she had written on the note card. She nodded and encouraged Mr. Bell to continue with the auction.
Anne straightened up in her chair guessing that her plate was the next meal up for bid. The boys were buzzing with hums of conversation as the event lagged.
"This... young men… is a delicious plate of spitched-eel." Mr. Bell was certainly trying to make Anne's menu sound more than what it was.
"Did you say...eel?" Moody Spurgeon MacPhearson queried from a chair not too far away from Anne. "You mean, those snakes in the river?"
Mr. Bell lifted the plate's cover to check. The surprise that splashed on his face made Anne giggle. Her entrée's presentation was rather shocking. Although the gutted beast was split, grilled and seasoned it looked very much alive.
Gilbert Blythe stood all the way in the back of the church with his father trying to guess which plate of food might be Anne's. His dad whispered to Gilbert, "That's the one you want to bid on, Son."
"The eel?" Gilbert felt the color go from his face. "Those slimy things that eat worms and rotted dead things, not to mention...?"
"Yep! I'm pretty sure Miss Shirley made that."
Gilbert could see Anne's red hair a few rows in front of him. She was looking around at the boys complaining about the plate. She looked too invested in their reactions. Gilbert's eyes glanced at the other girls that had made plates. He highly doubted the Pye girls would have been so imaginative to make eel, although they would be as bold. Diana and Ruby lacked the sort of gall necessary to prepare something as audacious as eel for a church fundraiser.
"I think you're right, Dad. Anne's the only one that would do something like this."
His father handed over an entire dollar. "Just in case." He placed his other hand on his back in a show of support.
"So, what have you, boys?" Mr. Bell asked as the lid snapped down over the plate. "Do I hear two bits?"
The normal starting price Mr. Bell requested was 50¢. Mr. Bell downgraded Anne's contribution. There was a long pause that followed when finally, a voice perked up from the back.
"I'll pay 25¢," Gilbert answered.
Anne looked behind her to confirm the owner of the voice bidding an entire quarter. Gilbert winked at her when their eyes met. Anne's jaw dropped which left no doubt in Gilbert's head. Now he had to buy that plate. He could see how it would vex her so.
"How about 30¢?" The auctioneer tempted the crowd. "A plate of fresh, river-eel for one lucky young man."
The other boys looked at one another and shook their heads. Gilbert was insane to bid on something so gross. Fred Wright told him as much when his elbow nudged his fifteen-year-old comrade's ribs. The rest of the room conceded to pass on the item and Gilbert held the coins in his fingers ready to close the sale.
"I'll pay 35¢" Another voice shouted with self-serving cockiness.
('Cocky' seemed to Anne, upon reflection, an impossible adjective to describe a voice, yet there was no other way to describe the thread of attitude woven into his words so succinctly.)
Oh dear. Anne thought. It was Charlie Sloane entering the contest.
"Fine, I'll bid 50¢"
So it went for the next few minutes. Mr. Bell, along with the rest of the room, kept looking back and forth as the Sloane boy and the Blythe boy drove the price up to the astronomical amount of 95¢. None of the adults could quite believe that river eel could fetch such a fine prize.
"You do know what eel eat, don't you?" Fred whispered in Gilbert's ear.
"I don't want to think about it."
Mr. Bell was waiting for Charlie to respond, would he drive up the price anymore or not?
Charlie was trying to decide. His eyes looked at Gilbert who was looking at Anne. Anne sat pale in her chair, attempting to make herself small. Pink rippled quickly over her countenance when Diana leaned in and whispered, so that only Anne could hear, "You know Anne, I have the feeling that it's not the eel they're bidding on. They must know it's yours."
"Diana Barry!" Anne was horrified. "You mean they're bidding on me?"
"Well, who's going to pay so much money for a dish of eel?"
Anne watched Charlie Sloane step up to Mr. Bell and Mr. Bell showed him what laid below the lid. With a slightly green shading overlaying his cheeks, Charlie threw up his hands and said, "Yikes! The eel is yours, Gilbert!"
Anne slid down her chair a tiny bit. Charlie's extravagant podium concession prompted some applause. It might have been worse, Anne rationalized. She might have made something romantic and more hearty. Her food preparations might have been a serious attempt to showcase her prowess as a chef instead of a snub on social paradigms. Suddenly, she was rather pleased to know that she'd be serving Mr. Gilbert Blythe a dinner that looked revolting. In fact, once the event closed, Anne proudly found her plate on the table of sold entrées and delivered it to Gilbert.
"Here you are, Mr. Blythe. One plate of delicious, spitched-eel. Bon Appétit"
Anne placed the plate in front of him at the table between his knife and the fork. She gingerly sat down next to him as he removed the lid. Underneath, spread out in a curve, was an eel several inches long and thick enough to require a small carving knife to work through.
Gilbert felt his stomach flip as the potent smell of oily fish hit his olfactory senses.
"Mr. Blythe, you must be quite a fan of eel to have spent such a lofty price for my rather humble attempt at cooking," Anne said as he watched him turn green. The corners of her lips were starting to curl, pleased with his hesitancy.
Gilbert used the sharp point of the knife to poke at the salty gray thing. It did not have scales like a fish does. His father had assured him eel was good, but it might help not to look at it too closely. Gilbert slowly sliced off a bit of the meat and told himself that no one died from eating eel. It wasn't bad actually. It wasn't his favorite, as it was saltier than what he would have preferred, but not bad. His hazel eyes flashed to hers and he paused to drink his water. Chewing slowing, thinking, maybe too much on the rubbery side.
"Miss Shirley," Gilbert said more to his neighbors at the table than to her, "You must be a genius in the kitchen. To make this water creature so delectable."
"What?" Anne's jaw dropped in surprise and a furrow instantly appeared between Anne's gray-green eyes. Gilbert chuckled, seeing now that he wasn't supposed to like it. He was supposed to hate it. Despise it even!
Gilbert lobbed off a larger piece and through a full mouth, informed those listening, "This is by far the best eel I ever had. It's delicious!"
Anne forced herself to sit through Gilbert's praises the next ten minutes until he handed her her plate, empty. He had made all the eel disappear. He leaned back and patted his belly to show her his hunger was assuaged much to Anne's disgust.
"Gilbert?" Anne rubbed her husband's arm and woke him. He was slow to open his eyes. He barely slept well anymore, not since the day he had excitedly told Anne that he had heard not one, but two heartbeats growing inside of her.
"Anne, what is it?" He rolled to his side and placed his hand on her well-formed baby bump. "Are our babies bothering you?"
"Gil, I'm so hungry," Anne told him, "And I want so badly to eat. . ."
Gilbert pinched the sand out of his eyes as he waited for Anne's request.
"Spitched-eel. Have I gone insane? Susan flat out refuses to make it. I tell her it's not me that wants it, it's the darling twins making the demand."
"Anne," Gilbert laughed, remembering that ridiculous meal he bought for 95¢ so long ago. "I never did ask you what made you make a plate of eel for a church fundraiser anyway. I still remember Mr. Bell almost fainting as he peeked."
Anne laughed too when the memory resurfaced. Poor Mr. Bell had died a few years past. The news had been in one of Mrs. Lynde's letters.
"I laughed when I saw him jump. I did the eels because I objected to displaying myself as a future wife to a room full of young men."
"And it didn't work well for you, did it? Not with me winning and praising the glories of your river eel to all. It was good, if salty."
"No, I wasn't happy with the result, although I would have died then to think you and I would be here now, like this," Anne admitted placing her own hand their precious cargo. "You told everyone what an excellent cook I was, which implied what a good wife I would be. I'm really glad we married for reasons beyond my ability to prepare fish. I don't think I could butcher an eel now in my condition, much less catch it."
Gilbert yawned automatically as he came further out of his slumber. "You're a better wife and mother than cook. Li'l Jem and Walter adore you. And I don't mind telling everyone that."
Anne put her hand over Gilbert's. "Show me where the babies are again?"
Gilbert dragged her hand over to an edge of her inflated abdomen. "Here." He pressed her hand gently to her side. He then moved her hand to find the other baby, "And here."
"They don't kick anymore."
"There's no more leg room. It won't be much longer, maybe even in two weeks. You scared?"
"No Gil, never. I want to do this for you."
Gilbert brought Anne's hand up to his lips and kissed her fingers gently. He was more frightened than Anne ever could be. His fears contributed to his insomnia. He had seen her come close to dying birthing his child before. Anne insisted she wasn't afraid when any other wife probably would lay that on her husband's heart. She was always thinking of him in small ways.
"Tomorrow, I'll find some eel and grill some pieces for you, Anne-girl. I don't have the recipe but maybe Susan will take pity on me and help."
"Spitched-eel, for me?"
"Yep, this time, just for you."
Author's Note: This story was originally published under the title, "Spitched-Eel for Anne" and during a reread, I encountered the phrase, "such a fine prize". I decided to retitle this because the original title was a bit repellant and did nothing to foreshadow the sweetness of this narrative.