Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Japan

Japanese War Brides Film

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Cover package for Japanese War Bride DVD

Cover package for Japanese War Bride DVD

Four years ago I began working with two other women on a wonderful project that has finally come to life. In partnership with Lucy Craft, a Tokyo based reporter for National Public Radio, and Kathryn Tolbert, an editor for the Washington Post, we set out to tell our shared story. Our mothers were Japanese War Brides. After World War II, each of them met and married an American serviceman.  All were part of a movement of almost 50,000 Japanese women who followed their husbands to the United States to live and raise families.

Their story has rarely been told, so we set out to make a documentary about their journey.  To fund the project, we ran a Kickstarter campaign, allowing us to hire Blue Chalk Media, a wonderful Brooklyn based production company to shoot the film. The result, combining interviews, historical film and family photographs, is a 26 minute documentary, titled “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” airing between August 14 and 20 on BBC World News.  Blue Chalk also created a great War Bride trailer for the film.  This is a little known piece of American history.  Its a story of tolerance, forgiveness and perseverance, about making piece with one’s former enemy. An elegantly packaged DVD will be available later this year on the War Bride Project Website website. I hope you are able to see it.

Written by kasmauski

August 15, 2015 at 4:36 am

Images on My Mother’s Day

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At 17 my father Steven Kasmauski was far from his home on a Michigan farm. As World War II began, he joined the Navy, became a Seabee and worked in the jungles of the Philippines building runways and camps for our troops.

During this time, he bought a small camera and began photographing his life. He continued photographing throughout his 35 year-long Navy career.

Left my father Steve on a street corner in Tokyo's Ginza district.  Right, the same area today.

Left my father Steve on a street corner in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Right, the same area today.

In the early1950’s when Japan was still recovering from the devastation of war Steve was assigned to Yokosuka Naval Base. He was in his mid-20’s. Not long after arriving, he met a young Japanese woman named Emiko. They eventually married and became my parents.

Left, my father, Steve Kasmauski with three brothers in law, by the beach in Sajima. Right, the same scene today.

Left, my father, Steve Kasmauski with three brothers in law, by the beach in Sajima. Right, the same scene today.

By this time my father had upgraded to a professional camera—a Nikon S rangefinder. He recorded the exotic life around the coastal city of Yokosuka and in the small fishing village of Saijima—my mother’s home.

Left, the beach at Sajima, right, the same area today.

Left, the beach at Sajima, right, the same area today.

I grew up looking at those images. I often wondered what it was like for a Michigan farm boy to have arrived in such a place. Sometimes, I think he might have said it was quite familiar, perhaps like Spring Lake, the small fishing town where he grew up.

Nikon no longer makes a rangefinder camera like the one my father used. The locations he photographed have changed so radically that trying to find a few of them this past spring proved extraordinarily difficult.

Left, Yokosuka Naval Base in the early 1950s where I was born. Right, me in front of the Naval hospital today.

Left, Yokosuka Naval Base in the early 1950s where I was born. Right, me in front of the Naval hospital today.

In April I led a photography expedition in Japan for National Geographic. After the trip ended, I spent two days with my cousin Kazuo. His mother was the oldest of six sisters. My mother was the youngest. Kazuo drove me around Tokyo, Yokosuka and Saijima, trying to find the locations my father photographed 60 years ago.

Hardest to find was the place where my father did a “selfie” (with the help of a buddy) under a Ginza road sign.

Left, my mother overlooking her family home in the early 1950s.  Right, the same location today, blocked by a huge concrete wall

Left, my mother overlooking her family home in the early 1950s. Right, the same location today, blocked by a huge concrete wall

It was a melancholy journey for me. The locations were beyond recognition. The hill where my mother stood looking over the roof tops of her family home was replaced by a concrete wall.

Since I started working on the War Bride film, I’ve journeyed though that world my mother lived in as a young girl. My road map has been the still images my father created. They speak to me across half a century, connecting me to my roots, my mother and my father.

Written by kasmauski

May 11, 2015 at 2:36 am

People of Honduras’ Mesoamerican Reef

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Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

This year I’ve worked in Mexico and Myanmar. I’m currently on assignment in Ghana and Nigeria. However one of my favorite trips this year has been to the Bay Islands of Honduras. I journeyed there this spring for the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)—for whom I am a senior fellow—and their partner, Centro de Estudios Marinos Honduras (CEM). The region is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, a key marine region extending along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

Population pressure, overfishing, pollution and global warming all affect the Reef. Their consequences stress fishing communities all along the coast of these Central American countries. Fishermen must stay out longer and travel farther to match the number of fish caught in previous years.

Many conservation organizations focus on the Reef system but a few groups like ILCP and CEMS also support projects that investigate connections between the health of the seas and the health of the coastal communities.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

This project involved two underwater and two dry land shooters. I was one of the latter. I focused on the social impact of diminishing sea life around the reefs. This is one of my skills, as I specialize in photographing global health concerns, especially those linked to the degradation of the environment and social structures.   I was thrilled to have a story about which I was passionate.

However…I had not worked in this area before had never worked around reefs and didn’t speak Spanish.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

There was another way that this seemed like an odd assignment for me.

I can barely swim.

I learned when my uncle threw me into Spring Lake, Michigan and said, “swim.” I managed like a dog, paddling with my front paws and kicking with my back ones. I never really improved on that technique. Needless to say, underwater photography isn’t one of my skills.

Yet despite my poor swimming skills, I’m very comfortable around water. I come from a fishing family. My younger years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia, a city located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. We ate fish and crab we caught ourselves. We used chicken necks to catch a bushel or two of crabs right from shore.

My father was a career sailor who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He met my mother in Japan during the occupation. If he wasn’t in a war zone he was on a ship at sea. He could see first hand the thin line between life and death—men lost overboard and rogue waves nearly capsizing ships.

Fishing was important to the survival of both sides of my family. My father’s father drowned while fishing for supper in rural Michigan. My grandmother was never the same afterwards. My father’s family was poor. Catching their own food was vital to their survival. My mother was born in a small Japanese fishing village called Sajima, south of Yokohama. At the time it was so insignificant, the Americans forces flew over it on the way to bombing Yokohama and Tokyo without even giving the village a second thought. My mother’s uncles all fished for a living. They survived the war eating fish and other foods from the sea and didn’t starve like so many of their countryman living in bombed out urban areas.

Like the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chesapeake Bay faces similar overpopulation, overfishing and industrial development issues. In 2008 the Chesapeake Bay crab fishing industry was declared a federal disaster. The crab population has yet to recover.

But there is a big difference between my life on the Bay and the life of those living along the Mesoamerican Reef. My entire livelihood does not depend on the sea. I have options. Yet for many in the communities our team visited, fishing is the only way to make a living.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

I looked at the efforts to help communities and diversify their livelihood. One of the first communities I visited with the CEM team was Salada Barra, a small fishing community inside the Parque Nacional Cuero y Salado Marine Reserve, through which the Rio San Juan flows. The reserve is west of the coastal city of La Ceba. Our mission was to show the diversity of marine life among the mangroves and the interdependency of the marine area and the community of Salada Barra. I hoped to photograph life in the village. Not all went as planned. Fishing was problematic as many fish were too far from shore for the men to easily harvest.

There were plenty of environmental organizations present in this community. In this case, they seem to help the overall health of this particular community. Conservational projects including preserving the reefs, replenishing the mangroves, and protecting the manatees found in these waters employ locals to implement these plans. These efforts paved the way for other groups to provide social improvements. A high school class was added for the first time. Older students didn’t have to go away from home if they wanted to continue their education after elementary school. Visiting doctors and nurses came once a month to provide maternal and childcare, vaccinate school kids and look at other health concerns. We ran into a team of veterinarian technicians looking for dogs and cats to vaccinate for rabies. This especially impressed me since rabid dogs are fairly common in underdeveloped areas. These services are remarkable considering how remote this village is.

There is no easy way to access Salada Barra. The only way to get in and out of the village is aboard an old produce train that used to carry coconuts, pineapples and bananas out of the area to market. The ride is 35 minutes each way. Although this was once a large plantation region, agricultural is in decline and few coconuts are shipped out these days. They are developing a small tourist industry with a visitor center built by USAID. The hope is to bring people in via the train to tour the marine reserve, see manatees and eat fried fish cooked in local homes.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

Fishing is still central to this community. But they feel pressures from illegal drag fishing that catch all sizes of fish and other sea life. Although good laws are in place, enforcing them remains a continual challenge.

Salada Barra was one of many communities along the Bay Island region we visited. Some are more developed than others but all face the same pressures coming from a declining fishery industry and a threatened reef system. Though I didn’t know Spanish, I did know these people’s concerns, because those of us raised by the sea speak the same language.

You can read more on this at National Geographic.


Sharing Soup and Stories

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A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft's recipe.

A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft’s recipe.

My father died several years ago.

In my grief, I needed comfort. I began craving mochis. They’re a Japanese food—rice pounded to a dough-like texture, then cooked over a hot grill, finally bloating into a crusty ball with an inner texture of chewing gum. Finally, the dough is mashed into soy sauce sweetened with sugar. Yummy!

I love these little treats, but you probably have to have some Japanese blood to start salivating at their description.

Now, I find myself stressed for other reasons and have started craving miso soup. Not the wussy little bowls of nearly clear broth with tiny cubes of hydrated tofu served in most Japanese restaurants. No, what I want is my own recipe. The way I concoct miso is probably rooted in my hybrid Japanese, Polish and Lithuanian heritage with a tad of Russian thrown in. My soup has to have mounds of sliced shitake mushrooms and a block of tofu big to make a vegan family happy.  If available, I also throw in a hand full of spinach.  I add slices of green onion, some MSG and of course the miso, about a half a ladle full. It serves 4-6 folks, depending upon the size of the bowl and how hungry everyone feels. It’s a meal.  Include a few Japanese pickles and maybe a cracker or two and I feel satisfied.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

I learned to make this soup just a month ago when a dear friend of mine, Lucy Craft, an NPR and CBS correspondent based in Tokyo, showed me the simple recipe:

Heat four cups of water in pot.  Throw in a teaspoon of Hondashi, (aka MSG) found in any Asian food store, 2 or 3 finely chopped stalks of green onions, tofu cubes and sliced shitake mushrooms. You can add additional veggies as you prefer. When the broth begins to steam, mix in half a ladle of miso paste (also available in Asian food stores). Mix the paste slowly with the broth using a long pair of cooking chopsticks. Heat until the broth approaches boiling, but remove from heat before boiling begins. I often add  spinach to the broth just before I remove it from the heat.

I find it intriguing that I crave foods from my mother’s homeland whenever I’m stressed. Its like I’m genetically wired to need comfort food from a place I never lived, save as a small child. My mother rarely made Japanese food. When she did, she served it with a side dish of haughty arrogance and declarations about the superiority of Japanese people. My mother lived in her own cosmology, separate from the rest of society. Her stories were entertaining, but over the years I learned never to trust them.  Starting in fifth grade, I made dinner nearly every night.  If my mother was home, she would stand by my side, helping with some chopping and a lot of storytelling, usually about her childhood spent in a small fishing village during World War II.

My father was my best friend. After I married and moved away, we spent hours on the phone solving the world’s problems. Whenever we had the opportunity to be in the same location, we’d sit outside until the sun went down. He had his own tales to entertain me—stories of his upbringing on a farm in Pentwater, Michigan. Once he told me how he and his two younger siblings saw what they thought was Big Foot in the wild Michigan forest. They screamed all the way home. Oddly, no one else ever caught a glimpse of that creature. My father and I would drink glasses of red wine, watching day turn to dusk, appreciating the moment.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

As close as I was to my father, the only ethnic food I ever attempted to cook for him was black bread. I would spend days trying to master the recipe. It required fermentation and my house smelled like a brewery. My father had borrowed a vintage Lithuanian cookbook from a friend and made a copy. Then he made me a copy of his faded copy. This was the 1980s, and books on obscure ethnic foods were hard to come by.

Somehow I could never stomach making other Lithuanian or Polish treats, like the duck blood soup that his mother made for him during the Depression. Once I tried to make him Kugelis, a kind of baked potato torte brimming with butter, bacon, pork chops, milk and eggs. I felt like I was committing a criminal act. The cholesterol in that dish would have killed a weak heart in seconds.

As I get older I realize, like it or not, I am the sum of my parents. Not all of that is pretty. In fact, there are some parts I’d like to leave behind. But at my ever-advancing age, what I have accepted and embraced is my diversity. Growing up poor and enduring the stresses of my youth shaped me into the person I am today. Making food connects me to those two very different people who found each other in post-war Japan, married and became my parents.

When I’m in the field working, my most enjoyable moments are sharing a meal with the people I meet. Often they’ll ask me, “Are you hungry?” When I hear those amazing words, I know that I’ve been accepted into their extended family and a wonderful evening is about to begin.

Despite our crazy schedule, my husband and I try to share a meal with whichever of our children happens to be home. If we’re lucky, they’ll both share the table with us.  Our meals are often filled with laughter as the kids who have inherited their dad’s gift of humor try to outdo each other with exaggerated stories about their day.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water--is a tasty side dish with the soup.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water–is a tasty side dish with the soup.

I grew up seeking story—my parents sharing stories of their upbringing, my children interpreting their days, or the tales told by my subjects who allow me to photograph their lives. Food is a wonderful way to begin that sharing.

Written by kasmauski

June 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm

The Journey is What Matters

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An African animal park near Japan’s Mt. Fuji. The owner said he built the park because Fuji reminded him of Mt. Kilimanjaro

I’m leaving to join a group of women in Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a book project called “Dreamers and Doers.” The sponsoring group, Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, will use proceeds from sale of this book to supply textbooks and other educational materials for school children living around the base of the mountain.

It took me a while to agree to photograph this project. I’m not a devoted athlete. I walk when I have the time, but the last thing I climbed with any height was Mt. Fuji over 11 years ago. Back then I was in a different place, both physically and emotionally. I was working regularly and in good shape from hauling my gear in what seemed like at the time like nonstop travel. When I watched the sunrise from the top of Fuji in August 2001, the world seemed wide open and full of hope for a peaceful future.

This is the traditional view of Fuji--pristine and spiritual.

This is the traditional view of Fuji–pristine and spiritual.

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand.  You don't see all the industry surrounding the mountain as often

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand. Usually you don’t see all the industry surrounding the mountain.

Twelve days later, two planes hit the twin towers in New York, one hit the Pentagon near Washington, D.C and another plunged a group of Americans to their deaths in Pennsylvania. I watched this horrible destruction play over and over on TV.  I held my eight-year-old daughter tight and told her that the world would never be the same again.

In so many ways that has been true for my peers and me. Technology and market changes caused many newspapers and magazines to shrink or disappear. Hundreds of my fellow photographers became unemployed, leaving those of us in the free-lance world with less and less work to count on. My day rate hasn’t changed since the 1990s. Few editorial jobs—once my mainstay—now pay for assistants. Business class, once a given for international travel, is a thing of the past. What once was fun is now an exercise in non-stop stress.

In response, I started moving away from my first love—journalism—and towards my avocation—non-profits. Working for groups like Catholic Relief, the Ladies Trekking Virtual Club or many others has become my main focus.

Like all of us, I’m aging. So when the offer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came up, I hesitated, thinking “how can I do something like that?” I would be the oldest person on the group by over a decade. But as the saying goes, “you’re not getting any younger.”  So why not?  And if not now, when? (Luckily the writer I suggested to them accepted the job, so now I’m merely the second oldest person on the climb.)

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

Hearing about this newest adventure, my friends looked at me with expressions ranging from shock to curiosity. No one said, “Wow I’d love to do that!” Most comments were “I really admire you for that.” In other words “You’re a fool—I’d never do that in a million years!!”

As the world changes, I hope that I’m maturing along the way. I’ve learned to grab opportunities that come my way–like climbing Kilimanjaro. I don’t want to regret that I passed up a chance to experience something different.  “Just do it,” a phase that Nike has run into the ground, is actually how I try to live my life.

If I had listened to my mother I’d probably be an unhappy housewife trying to carve out a living while selling cosmetics at the Little Creek Naval Base Exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. My parents had no aspirations for me. All they wanted me to do was get married, have a family and not commit any crimes. They never thought of college as an option for me. So I plowed ahead without their support, earning money for college application fees with summer jobs. I worked at a fish and chip joint, a self-serve gas station (I was held up. It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me) and finally that Naval Base cosmetic counter.

Luckily I got a full academic scholarship from the University of Michigan, so I went there. I paid the rest by working three jobs. One of them, photographing for the “Michigan Daily” student paper, laid the foundation for my professional career.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill.  We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old.  It was much harder and colder than he'd expected, but he didn't give up.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill. We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old. It was much harder and colder than he’d expected, but he didn’t give up.

I won’t accept words like “no” or “can’t.” I’ve always risen to the occasion even if what I do ends in failure. I cannot complain unless I’ve tried. Life is too short and wonderful not to try new experiences even if I can’t complete them. So that is why I decided in the end to accept the challenge to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I complete the climb, I’ll be ecstatic with bragging rights. If I don’t, at least I tried and trying is all I ask of my children and myself.

Written by kasmauski

February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Remembering Kobe—Japan’s Last Earthquake

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A survivor of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe Japan anxiously waits as rescue worker search for her relatives.

Watching the amateur and professional videos of that horrendous tsunami hitting Japan, I felt that same cold dread  as when I saw the twin towers fall on 9/11.

It was impossible not to feel complete horror as the 24-foot high, 125-mile long tsunami slammed into the flat coastline of northeastern Japan. The towns and orderly farms were ground under by a giant liquid bulldozer, destroying everything in it’s pathway.

In front of our eyes lives were lost, families destroyed, fortunes forever changed.  Survivors will never be able to regain normalcy. How could they?  For those living through this calamity, the guilt of surviving when so many died will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Japan’s prime minister called it the worst disaster to hit the country since WWII.

This unfortunate series of events were recorded in unprecedented ways. Tsunamis have rarely been captured on film or video. Fast and deadly, those in the path of tsunamis can do little more than flee if they hope to survive. But as more and more video surfaced in the hours and days after the disaster, it seemed  everyone not swept away in the wall of water and mud had been recording the devastation on video cameras and cell phones.

The torrent of images reminded me of when I covered the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. 6,400 people died in that one city. Thousands were left homeless in the freezing January weather.

I arrived in Kobe eight days after the quake occurred. I wasn’t prepared for the personal way in which the devastation affected me. My mother is Japanese. My father, an American sailor,  met her in Japan in the 1950s. They married and I was born in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

After moving to the United States, my mother took on the role of an American housewife and rarely discussed her culture.  As a child I didn’t connect  with my Japanese roots. But as an adult, I started visiting Japan to photograph stories for National Geographic magazine. I soon realized  even though I was raised in the United States, my first two years of life in Japan  had woven enough strands of the Japanese character into my soul, that it affected how I reacted to conflict and friendships.   It explains a character I have that I’ve never  understood,  a strong persistence even in face of pending failure.

Ironically, my  first trip to Japan was to  covered their nuclear energy program for piece on “Radiation”.  Japan was the  only country to have suffered attacks by atomic weapons.   Yet they also embrace nuclear power. It’s a dangerous embrace—even in the late 1980s when I covered the story, Japanese were concerned about the safety of nuclear facilities in their earthquake prone country. Interestly, we were not given access to any of their plants at that time.

In the wake of the tsunami, we see how those fears were well placed—the Daiichi nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture may have suffered a partial meltdown, and is likely ruined by emergency cooling efforts. The possibility of long-term contamination still lingers over the region’s devastated survivors.

Japan’s embrace of nuclear power has always baffled me. They are an energy-starved country.   But they are also dead center on an earthquake zone .  Any more quakes and tsunamis following this one could turn a mere disaster into Armageddon.

We, in the United States,  are no different. We have nuclear facilities on top of fault lines in California. One of the worst earthquakes to hit the US was in the early 1880’s, the New Madrid Earthquake,  reversing the flow of the Mississippi River and creating Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.  It was felt as far away as Washington D.C.  and Canada.  Today, nuclear reactors are all through that region.

I thought about the Japanese nuclear reactors while  covering the  earthquake in Kobe.  The story I worked on looked at  the recovery efforts, but  because it would be published months after the quake, it also examined  how Japanese perseverance and it’s mono-culture moved it’s recovery along. Everyone was in it together.     I remember going to a “refugee camp” where thousand of homeless huddled in the gymnasium of a large high school. Tatami mats were lined wall to wall and strangers slept literally next to each other.

Japanese aid workers serve hot meals to Kobe residents after the 1995 earthquake.

Each day they served one hot meal—a bowl of soup. I photographed the serving of the meal.  People in line insisted I got the first bowl.  I was a guest. I was deeply moved that even in the midst of such tragedy their sense of hospitality was so ingrained into their spirit that they would offer  it to a stranger   under such stressful circumstances.    I was also amazed that I could walk by a devastated liquor store with yellow police tape around it and nothing would be taken. A jewelry story still had diamond rings untouched in its window. There was none  of the chaos and looting often seen when disaster hits other locations, including those in our own country.

Because it was the era of film,  I could still gather original images that no one else had seen weeks after the quake had hit.   There were no digital cell phones that could take and transmit pictures or videos instantly.  When I see the incredible images taken by “citizen journalists” coming out of Japan recently, it’s clear, the era in which I grew up in the professionally  has truly passed.

Maybe it is more of a transition than a passing.  My profession is in flux.  The way in which news is gathered has changed dramatically. New digital tools make it easy to capture events as they unfold before us. This most recent event,  occuring in the one of the most technological advanced countries in the world, proves it. We’ve seen intimate images of this disaster which  could never have been captured in previous times.  Most were taken by amateurs with cell phones and  transmitted onto the web for  the world to see.

There were  hints of that technology in 2004 with the  the Madrid train bombing, when cell phone images appeared on the front pages of major news publications. We saw it in Egypt this winter with what people called “the battle Google won.”  Cell phones in Japan captured video of the massive wall of water taking down buildings and sweeping people into oblivion. Those images will forever be part of our collective memory.

In the middle of al this tragedy, these technological devises also captured the strong human spirit   that I also encountered in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. I have faith that the kindness, generosity and perseverance of the Japanese people will carry them through this difficult time. They may have to adjust to a new reality that includes living a more austere life and re-examining the placement of nuclear faciltiies.   If so, we, in this country, might do well to study that pathway and perhaps walk it ourselves.

Written by kasmauski

March 16, 2011 at 12:08 am

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.