Lamprey eel, or “lamper” are a member of the ancient fish family of “jawless fishes” that existed before the time of the dinosaurs. The lampreys usually found in New Hampshire rivers are a member of the Sea lamprey, “Petromyzon marinus Linnaeus 1758.”
They are 12-20 inches long, and eel-like. They have a circular mouth with rows of teeth. They are considered parasites and use their teeth to hold onto fish. They are great bait for bass fishing.
Today the Lamprey Eel is seen as more of a pest than a blessing. But New Hampshirites did not always hold this opinion. In the early days of our state, the colonists, and especially those around Derryfield (now Manchester) considered lamprey eels to be an important part of their diet.
“Suppose we have no idea of the immense number of fish with which this river [the Merrimack] once abounded. My father has seen the shad so thick as to crowd each other in their passage up the falls, to gain the smooth water above; so that you could not put in your hand, without touching some of them; and yet there were more alewives than shad, and more eels than both. It is no wonder that eels were called “Derryfield beef,” for I have heard those say, who would be good judges in the matter, that eels enough were salted down in a single year, to be equal to three hundred head of cattle.” [son of early settler of Manchester NH ].
There was one great advantage about the lamprey eel: it had no bones except in the head; and as that was never eaten, it made safe food for the children. But the alewives had not this advantage. They were as full of bones as the eels were free from them.
“…the eel fishers formed but a small portion of the people of Derryfield, while the eel eaters were universal. This luxury was ever welcome, and was served in various ways, according to the taste or ability of the possessor. I well remember the mode of living among many of the poorer people. As dinner time drew near, the woman, taking a stick, poked from the ashes a dozen or so of roast potatoes, then, going to the barrel, took out a salt eel and laid it on the coals. The children, with a roast potato in one hand, and a piece of eel in the other, made their repast; and I have often joined those hungry circles, and found in this simple food, a satisfaction which I have since failed to derive from the costliest viands of our most magnificent hotels.”
King Henry I of England was reported to have died in Normandy in 1135 after feeding too heartily on lampreys.
As early as 1472, the Lamprey Eels was considered the food of royalty. One recipe:
Eels in a Torta–To boiled eels that have been cut into bits, add either milk from other fish or finely chopped soft fat. Cut up a little mint and parsley. Add an ounce of pine kernels, a like amount of raisins, a little cinnamon, ginger, pepper, clove, and mix. Then spread it into your crust. You should add a little best oil. When it is nearly cooked, dissolve two ounces of ground almonds in verjuice with saffron and pass through a strainer and gently spread this over the whole top. Palladius Rutilius is marvellously fond of this dish, even though it is not good.
“From the eels they formed their food in chief,
And eels were called the Derryfield beef;
It was often said that their only care,
And their only wish, and their only prayer,
For the present world, and the world to come,
Was a string of eels and a jug of rum.”
— William Stark per (page 114) the History of Windham in New Hampshire, by Leonard Allison Morrison, 1883.
In 1925 the pipe that connected Dartmouth College with its water source was found to be plugged with “three bushels of lamprey eels.”
Photographs of Lamprey (pinterest)
[Story updated 5/30/2015]