Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Salmon, Oil & Alaska

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Netting salmon caught in Prince William Sound.

Early summer is the time when people here in the Washington DC area eagerly await the arrival of one of my favorite foods—freshly caught Alaska salmon.  But the path to my love of salmon wasn’t an easy one.

I spent my early years in Bellwood, Illinois.  Fish came out of cans labeled with odd names like “Bumble Bee” or “Chicken of the Sea.”  My mother shaped the stuff inside into patties that she fried.  Even though the pink salmon didn’t smell like much coming out of the can, she somehow managed to add a strong fishy odor to the cooked patties.  So it wasn’t a surprise that I and my three siblings grew up hating fish.

My first culinary encounter with a fish outside of a can was even worse.

When I was nine, a couple of young men—cousins—lived next door. One of them was escaping his pregnant girlfriend down in eastern Kentucky.  They went fishing on one of the hot summer days we had in Illinois.  This seemed strange to me, since there weren’t any lakes or rivers nearby.  But their expedition, probably fueled by plenty of alcohol, was successful.  Somewhere, somehow, the duo managed to catch a very large Buffalo fish.  They look a bit like carp, with a flat face and big silver scales.

They kept the fish in the trunk of the car most of that day.  Getting home, they looked it over and wisely decided not to eat it.  So they brought the fish over to my mom and asked if she wanted it.  I remember watching, seeing one of the men flirting like crazy with her the whole time, waving the gross looking fish bladder at her like an odd sexual organ.  My mother loved that sort of flirtatious play.  She laughed and flirted back, adoring the attention even if it was raunchy.  I watched the interplay, appalled by it all.

The fish was clearly spoiled by the heat.  Its disgusting stench assaulted everyone and everything in the house, except for my mother.  She cleaned the miserable creature and put it in the oven.  Cooking made the smell worse.  I refused to take a bite, as did my brothers and sister.  My mother forced us to eat it.

The next morning the fish was gone.  Little sleuths that we were, my brothers, sister and I found it in the trash.   We learned the story from our father.  He worked several part time jobs and often came home after we all had gone to bed.  My mother served him the fish that night.  He took one bite and immediately threw it away, telling her to use some common sense.  Even though I was just nine at the time, I confronted my mother with this.  Why did she make us eat a spoiled fish?   It didn’t go well.  She couldn’t stand to be challenged.

Looking back on the episode, it’s a miracle that my mother didn’t kill the whole lot of us with that spoiled Buffalo fish.  That’s how she was.  She grew up in Japan during World War II.  Cooking whatever food she could find, no matter what its condition, was an obsession for her.  After that episode, I could never look at a cooked fish without gagging.

Alaska’s Prince William Sound

It took several decades, the beauty of Alaska, and a wonderful summer evening to give me the courage to take a bite of fish again.  National Geographic had assigned me to cover the impact of the oil industry on Alaska.  I was hesitant to take the story.  I had never worked as a photographer in extremely cold weather of the far north.  Like a lot of people in “the lower 48” my vision of Alaska was one of ice and snow.  Did people actually live up there?

The assignment started during a glorious Alaska summer.  I did a research trip with my editor.  Arriving in Anchorage, I thought I had landed on another planet.  Everything in Alaska seemed larger and lusher than anything I had encountered on the east coast of the United States.  At 8:00 pm—dinnertime—the sun was still shining brightly.

We ended up at a local eatery called Simon and Seaforts, sitting at a window with a full view of Cook Inlet.  The tide was out.   Sunlight sparkled on the wet coastal bottom.  My editor, who frequently traveled to Alaska, told me I had to taste the salmon.  I paused for a moment and thought, ‘what the heck, I’m on expense account. If the gag reflex comes back, I’ll order something else.’

Filleting freshly caught salmon.

The salmon arrived.  With one bite of the rich, red, wild-caught yet mild-tasting fish, I had an epiphany so profound that I felt transformed.  I became a salmon believer—a fanatic.  Through out that entire assignment I was a zealot, searching out wild salmon in whatever way it could be had:  baked, grilled, dried, canned. Salmon became my holy grail.

My husband, who is used to me sending back local foods from places where I work, started receiving boxes of canned salmon processed by local companies, and bags of smoked salmon jerky.

King salmon caught on the Kenai River.

Yet the trophy that pleased me the most was one I had to fight for—a box brimming with freshly caught king salmon meat, flash frozen and shipped home.  I wasn’t expecting to win this prize when I set out one morning to photograph combat fishing on the Kenai River.  Getting pictures involved a lot of waiting, broken by a few moment of intense action as the fishermen furiously fought for their catches.  The man I was working with suggested that I get a fishing license to use during the slack periods.  I put my line in the water.  Ten minutes later I’d hooked a 45-pound king salmon and I spent the next hour reeling it in.  Hung outside the processing shed, other fishermen lined up to have their picture taken with my trophy.  “Nobody will know it isn’t mine,” one of them told me.

Like the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 divided the population, depending on whether they were for or against oil development. What everyone could agree on was the importance of salmon to native culture and lifestyle.

Hanging freshly caught salmon on a drying rack.

In more remote areas of Alaska, salmon means survival, not sport.  If salmon isn’t caught, then dogs don’t have the food the needed for them to pull the sleds or help with the hunting.  I spent several days with an Athabascan who owned fish wheels on the river at Fort Yukon.  I watched as he gathered, gutted and stripped the fish that he caught.   He hung some of them to dry.  He wrapped others, and placed them in freezers plugged into a jury-rigged outlet that seemed to connect directly to a high voltage line.  He offered me a zip lock bag brimming with strips of wonderfully flavorful dried salmon.

On a later trip to Alaska, I worked on a story about the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill.  An Alaska Fish and Game scientist showed me how even little amounts of oil in the water can have a major impact on the development of salmon eggs and fingerlings.  I think about that when I watch the news coverage from the Gulf these days and see the oil invading the delicate breed grounds of the Louisiana marshes.

In the early 2000’s, I returned to Alaska and salmon to work on a food safety story.  At that time, salmon runs on the Yukon River hadn’t materialized.  No one was sure why.  Commercial fishing in that area wasn’t allowed that summer.  In some parts of the state where native dependency on salmon is intense the lack of salmon cause food shortage situations.   The state government looked into food drops for the more remote villages, as the situation got worse.

Salmon fight their way upstream in a creek on eastern Prince William Sound.

On islands in Prince William Sound, I saw streams packed with salmon migrating to their spawning grounds.  They were so thick that I could have walked on them and not touched the bottom.  The water was red like blood, throbbing with their energy and focused drive to reach their breeding grounds.  I couldn’t imagine not having salmon around.  Yet if we continue to pollute the oceans with oil spills and industrial toxins, that day may come sooner than we think.

In my travels around Alaska, I jumped from island to island by small plane.  Traveling like that doesn’t lend itself to stopping for lunch.  On my trip, the researcher I was with failed to tell me to pack a lunch, probably figuring I was smart enough to do so without a reminder.  I wasn’t, but the pilot was.   He brought along small jars of smoked salmon canned by a friend of his in Cordova.    The pilot handed me fingers of firm, red salmon, bursting with flavor.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

I still can’t.

Child holding a salmon puppet at the Sealife Center in Seward Alaska

Barbeque Salmon

Here is a wonderful recipe I collected from a fellow salmon lover.  I make it all the time, using wild Alaskan Salmon filets.

The following recipe is for 1.5 pounds of salmon filet

Marinade ingredients

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons bourbon

3 tablespoons chopped onion

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Mix these and marinate the salmon for 2-3 hours.

(1 hour is adequate, but longer marinate time is better.)

The salmon can be either grilled or broiled. The salmon should be cooked on top of a sheet of foil turned up at the edges to keep the marinade mixture contained (this is important).  The salmon is not turned during cooking.

Cooking time is determined by eye.  I usually broil it on the second wrung from the top broiler for about 15 minutes with the foil folded over the fish, semi-poaching it first before opening the foil for the last five minutes to crisp the top.

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