In Season: Eel
Chances are you've never sunk your teeth into the slimy, scaleless, oily flesh of a lamprey. The jawless but toothy creature looks like an eel but is in fact a different species similar to hagfish. Believe it or not, it's a Pacific Northwest culinary and cultural icon, but you won't find it in local restaurants or markets anytime in the near future.
Since 2002 the commercial harvest of lamprey has been banned. Local lamprey numbers plummeted in recent years from such causes as overfishing, pollution and man-made water barriers. The lamprey hasn't acquired endangered status, but it is highly regulated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Considered a delicacy throughout much of Europe, lamprey is a high-energy food packed with vitamins and minerals. Dale Nelson, a fisheries biologist for the ODFW, admits he hasn't tried lamprey.
'It was once described to me as a tough and chewy cross between liver and duck,' he says. But he knows many Pacific Northwest Native American elders who liken lamprey to fish candy. 'Most of the younger tribal folks don't care for it because they haven't grown up with it,' he says, 'while the elders, who were raised on lamprey, consider it a treat.' It'd be a mistake to liken the flavor of lamprey to eel, which is usually more subtle and tender and tastes slightly sweet.
For thousands of years, Pacific Northwest Native American tribes have depended on lamprey as a protein source. Current regulations allow for the recreational harvest of 100 per person per season with a permit from the Clackamas ODFW office.
Kelly Dirksen, fish and wildlife coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, an Oregon confederation consisting of 26 different tribal linguistic groups, organizes annual summer lamprey harvesting trips to Willamette Falls in Oregon City. Like salmon, the lamprey in this region are anadromous, returning from the sea to their freshwater spawning sites in the spring and early summer. Dirksen's groups usually harvest about 300 lamprey, which are distributed among tribal members.
'When we're out there fishing, I think about how these tribes used to have to hunt for deer, forage for camas (plants) and source all kinds of other plants and animals in order to survive,' she says. 'Then at certain times of the year they could travel to Willamette Falls or other nearby falls and waterways and simply pluck a seemingly endless supply of lamprey right off the rocks.'
Harvesting lamprey is no longer such an easy process. 'It's dangerous,' Dirksen says. 'You're hurtling heavy currents. The water traveling over the falls now is warm surface water because of the hydro plant. All of the nutrients in this warm water make for an overgrowth of slippery algae. It's extremely difficult to get a footing.'
Tribal preparation of lamprey is often a two-part process. First, the lamprey is boiled in order to rid it of excessive fat, and then it can be barbecued, baked, simmered in a stew or air-dried.
If you'd like to try lamprey, head out to the upcoming Oregon Eel Fest in Oregon City and West Linn. You'll be able to sample cooked lamprey - but not from Oregon. Last year, festivalgoers munched on bite-sized servings of smoked lamprey flown in from Australia.
It might seem strange to have a festival for such an endangered creature, but Eel Fest Chairman David Porter says: 'Pacific lamprey all around the Pacific Rim are in decline. In organizing this festival we had ambitions on several levels. We wanted an entertaining and interesting cultural festival for the area - one uniquely tied to Oregon's roots and past. We also were intent on tying into important environmental issues.'
If you'd rather catch your own, apply for a free permit with the ODFW's Clackamas office (17330 S.E. Evelyn St., 503-657-2000). Then head down to Willamette Falls, the only permissible spot for Oregon lamprey fishing (Saturday through Monday, through July 31) and scale the falls for the slimy, slithery critters.
You won't find lamprey recipes in your average cookbook. The following are taken from the 1991 report, 'Oral History Interviews With Siletz Tribal Elders and Neighboring Residents Regarding the Decline in Siletz River Lamprey Populations.'
• Cut off the head and tail of the lamprey and remove the backbone.
Bake on a roasting rack so that the oil drips off until tender. Garnish with mustard and onion.
• Cut off the head and tail and remove the backbone.
Cut into short pieces and cover in a pot with garlic, salt and pepper, vinegar, soy sauce, onion and water. Boil for several minutes until tender.
• Remove the backbone and cut the lamprey into chunks.
Fry with salt and pepper until tender.
Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, Oregon State
University and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz