A Parasite Pie Fit For A Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Jun 3, 2012
Originally published on June 3, 2012 12:02 pm

From our "How To Do Everything" podcast:

Among the many gifts Queen Elizabeth II will receive for her Diamond Jubilee is a special lamprey pie from the town of Gloucester. It's a tradition dating back centuries. Lampreys may seem like an odd gift for a monarch, but one person's eel-like parasite which sucks the blood of fish is another person's delicacy.

The bloodsuckers used to be plentiful in Gloucester, but years of overfishing and habitat destruction means their population is now scarce. Here in the Great Lakes region of the United States, we have the opposite problem.

"It's an invasive fish that caused incredible havoc on the fishery," Mark Gaden of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission says.

We have too many lampreys. Gloucester has too few. So they asked if they could have some of ours for their special royal pie.

"Somebody actually replied, 'certainly, how many lorryloads would you like?'" Sarrah Macey of the Gloucester Folk Museum says. "And we had to kind of decline gracefully and say 'we literally just need enough to make one pie, thank you very much.'"

For Gaden, it was a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of a deal. He even presented the lampreys to Gloucester in a ceremony there last month. "We want to get rid of them. And so I was more than happy to provide. A couple less lamprey in the Great Lakes, but it's also fun to help them maintain their tradition."

About that photo at the top? We asked Gaden to send a couple lampreys to the Pleasant House Bakery here in Chicago, and they were happy to whip up a lamprey pie. It was surprisingly tasty. And, said owner and chef Art Jackson, "I'm feeling pretty royal right now."

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As part of the jubilee celebration, the city of Gloucester, England will present the queen with a pie made from lampreys. That's a type of eel. It's a tradition dating back centuries, but it wouldn't be happening without some help from Britain's friends across the pond, Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth of NPR's How To Do Everything podcast, explain.

IAN CHILLAG, BYLINE: The royal family used to spend Christmas in Gloucester, which was an honor for the people that lived there.

MIKE DANFORTH, BYLINE: Here's Sarrah Macey of the Gloucester Folk Museum.

SARRAH MACEY: We used to give them one lamprey pie each Christmas just to say thanks for coming to Gloucester.

CHILLAG: And the lamprey, just to be clear, is a bloodsucking parasite.

MACEY: Absolutely. They're very ugly, ugly things, if I'm honest. It's an eel with almost like a leech head and the lamprey, at the time, was very, very common in the River Severn, which is our river.

CHILLAG: But now, lampreys are a protected species in the U.K. They wish they had more of them.

DANFORTH: Here in the Great Lakes, though, the lamprey is best described as...

MARK GADEN: A noxious destructive pest.

CHILLAG: That's Mark Gaden from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

GADEN: They have the mouth of an alien and in the middle of that mouth is a file-like tongue that flicks its way through the scales and skin of the fish, feeding on the fish's blood. It's an invasive fish that accidently entered the system and caused incredible havoc on the fishery.

CHILLAG: So Gloucester needs lampreys to make the royal pie.

DANFORTH: And the United States needs to get rid of lampreys for the health of their Great Lakes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From the Great Lakes Fishery Commission...

CHILLAG: Mark Gaden was happy to provide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ...welcome to the ancient noble cathedral city of Gloucester. Will you please be so kind to step forward and present your lampreys to the right worshipful, the mayor of Gloucester.

CHILLAG: That's the town crier of Gloucester in a ceremony a few weeks ago.

DANFORTH: Now we wanted to know just how gross a lamprey pie would be so we asked Mark to send a couple of eels to the Pleasant House Bakery here in Chicago.

CHILLAG: They specialize in British-style pies. Art Jackson owns the place.

ART JACKSON: The UPS driver walked in with a blue cooler, an Igloo cooler, and the UPS driver asked if we were expecting a heart or a kidney so I told him, no, eels. And he said, well, that makes sense. So, yeah. So right here we have two beautiful specimens. It reminds me of science class.

CHILLAG: Is there anything about what you're seeing right now say to you delicious pies?

JACKSON: It's not screaming yummers.

DANFORTH: One hour and 45 minutes later...

JACKSON: Not a bad pie. Not a bad pie.

DANFORTH: And you know, it really wasn't bad. We tried it, too, and it tasted just like a potpie you get at the store.

CHILLAG: Yeah, the key is to just not think about the fact it's filled with bloodsucking parasites. For NPR News, I'm Ian Chillag.

DANFORTH: And I'm Mike Danforth.

MARTIN: Mike and Ian produce the podcast, How To Do Everything. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.