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Sea Cucumbers - Harper's


Toward the end of October of every year there is a harvest of cucumbers in mid-ocean. These cucumbers, however, are not at all like those we see on our tables. In the first place, they are not vegetables, but animals, and, in the second place they grow upon the bottom of the sea. The general appearance of the creature can be seen in the accompanying cut. There are many species, but they all possess elongated worm-like bodies, with thick leathery skins, and a crown of feelers, or tentacles, about the forward extremity. All species, likewise, exercise the same astonishing method of resenting any liberties taken with their persons, by suddenly and unexpectedly ejecting their teeth, their stomach, their digestive apparatus—in fact all their insides, so to speak—in the face of the intruder, reducing themselves to a state of collapse, and making of themselves mere empty bags, until such time as their wonderful recuperative powers enable them to replace the organs so summarily disposed of; for, wonderful as it may seem, teeth, stomach, digestive organs, and all soon grow again. Moreover, these stomachs have digestive powers that are not to be despised, far surpassing even those popularly ascribed to the ostrich, for the sea-cucumber actually seems to feed upon coral, and even granite has been found in its stomach.

Sea-cucumbers, as they are popularly called, are also known by the name of trepang and sea-slug. Scientific people call them Holothuroideæ, but why, no one has ever been able to find out, since the name has no meaning. Sea-cucumbers are considered a great delicacy by the Chinese. Thousands of Chinese vessels, called junks, are fitted out every year for these fisheries. Trepangs are caught in different ways. Sometimes the patient fishermen lie along the fore-part of vessels, and with long slender bamboos, terminating in sharp hooks, gather in sea-cucumbers from the bottom of the sea, so practiced in hand and eye that the catch is never missed, and is discerned sometimes at thirty yards' distance. When the water is not more than four or five fathoms deep, divers are sent down to gather these culinary monsters, as seen in the illustration, the boat and junk remaining near to receive the harvest.


As soon as the trepangs are collected they are carried to the shore, when they are scalded by throwing them alive into large iron pots set over little ovens built of stones. Here they are stirred about by means of a long pole resting upon a forked stick, as seen in the illustration. In these vessels they remain a couple of minutes, when they are taken out, disemboweled with a sharp knife, if they haven't already thrown up their stomachs, and then taken to great bamboo sheds containing still larger boilers. In these latter is water seasoned with mimosa bark. A busy scene now ensues; all is bustle, noise, and activity. The bubbling of the great caldrons, the incessant chatter of those engaged in the work, the dumping of fresh loads of sea-cucumbers into the vessels, and the removal of others to hang in clusters on the ropes above, or be deposited on hurdles to dry in the sun, make "confusion worse confounded," and give the spectator a new and realizing sense of the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel.

The sea-cucumbers having been smoked in the large caldrons (for the mimosa bark is consumed in the process), and then dried, are ready for the market, and, packed in bundles, are stowed away in the holds of the junks and proas off shore.

They are said to taste like lobsters; but if they look, as one traveller says they do, "like dried sausages rolled in mud and thrown up the chimney," few of us could be induced to try whether we liked them or not.