An animal’s appearance rarely figures into a calculation of its deliciousness, but even the hardiest of carnivores might hesitate before the hideous lamprey. These jawless parasites are notorious for glomming onto lake trout and other fish, boring into them with their rasplike teeth, and sucking out their innards. In the Great Lakes, they’re considered a pest, and eliminated with chemicals, or caught and killed by hand.
One man’s pest is another man’s delicacy. Lamprey pie was a favored food of English royalty for many years. King Henry I was so fond of lampreys that he was rumored to have died from eating too many of them. Great Lakes lampreys have been received well by taste testers in Portugal, and Pacific lampreys are harvested by Native Americans and served as a traditional dish, according to a recent NPR story. (Unlike the lamprey in the Great Lakes, however, the Pacific lamprey is a threatened species.)
Although they’re closer to fish than eels, lampreys can be smoked or barbecued much like unagi. Bob Bennett, chef at Bennett’s on the Lake in Duluth, Minnesota, experimented with some recipes and gave an equivocal assessment of the flavor:
I would have to say it tastes like lamprey, because it does not have a flavor that you can associate with anything else. ... [I]ts taste is not offensive. A lot of delicacies that I’ve been introduced to over the course of my career are a lot less palatable—such as the sea urchin.
Andre Cramblit, a member of the Karuk tribe, was more enthusiastic:
They’re rich, fatty, crisp on the outside. We throw the heads back in to crisp them up, but only the men get to eat them. Last year my nephew—he’s 2—walked around sucking on the head until there was nothing left but a ring of teeth.