When I cancel a date for sushi, you know I must have something really good on the line, and that’s what happened yesterday when I got a last-minute invite to join a group of Yup’ik Eskimo fisherfolk for lunch at the Space Needle:
It was my chance to chat with them regarding something they know a whole lot about — Yukon River salmon — and to proudly show off that incomparable view from Seattle’s famous landmark:
Over the past couple of days, they’d been tooling around with Jon Rowley, the Northwest seafood guru (and major marketeer) who put the words “Copper River” in our salmon lexicon. “Growley” as I like to call him, is now making it his business to have us associate the word “Yukon” with something other than potatoes, so he asked me to join him, his wife, Kate, and these Yukon River Delta villagers who were here on a reconnaissance mission representing their community-owned Kwik’pak Fisheries.
They wanted to see exactly how Seattle fishmongers and restaurateurs go about marketing Copper River salmon, whose short-lived annual run also hit town this week. BTW: As of late yesterday, Whole Paycheck’s selling the fish fileted for $27.99 (sockeye) and $37.99 (king), and the $14.99 filets of Copper River sockeye were already sold-out when I called a downtown QFC to see what they had in stock.
Before heading up to the Sky City restaurant — then heading to the airport for an afternoon flight — the Yup’ik visitors visited Pike Place Market (where produce purveyors are known to post signs selling “Copper River Asparagus”) and met Harry Yoshimura at Mutual Fish, who will be selling Yukon River salmon when the annual run arrives in town in a few short weeks. Jerry Alexie, whose family has been fishing the Yukon for generations, was celebrating his 45th birthday yesterday, and he and his wife, Eunice, were taking a break from their hard work in Pitkas Point (population 125) to do a little business and have a lot of fun down here in the Lower 48:
When Kate pointed out that Eunice’s earrings were mini ulus, Jerry told us that as a Yup’ik fisherman, he and his brother never go anywhere without their own ulus — the cutting tool of choice for Eskimos. “My Ulu’s like my American Express card,” said Jerry. “I never leave home without it.” His brother, he says, calls his ulu “my Eskimo Express.” I, on the other hand, always leave home without mine — whose handle and cradle are made from some kind of antler:
Actually it’s my husband’s ulu, but seeing as Washington is a community-property state, I get to use it, too. Mac bought it home from the Kuskokwim Delta in 1984 when he was writing and photographing an article on Yu’pik seal hunters and substistance culture. It’s a culture these folks are all too familiar with, which is why they were down here learning how to market the fish they subsist on, at a time when the fuel needed to run their fishing boats and heat their homes is prohibitively expensive. Gasoline prices (now ranging upward of $5-$6 and varying from one village to another) are fixed for the year, and the next shipment will soon be dropped off by barge following this year’s “break-up” — when the winter ice, frozen across the river, breaks into chunks and flows out to sea.
To put village-costs in perspective, I’ve been told that the average annual income of a Yup’ik is about $9000. Today, says Eunice, a loaf of bread runs her about six bucks and a gallon of milk closer to $7. It’s costing 11-cents a gallon to make the ice needed to keep their commercial fish fresh, and they’re producing about 60,000 pounds a day. Worse, with the big factory trawlers trawling the Bering Sea, salmon runs just aren’t what they used to be and salmon-bycatch from those trawlers mean fewer fish for the Yup’ik to subsist on and sell.
But back to my new friends. On Wednesday night, the Alexies joined their new friend, Kwik’pak Fisheries manager Tom Redfox (of Emmonak, population 823):
Tom already knew fisherman Stanley Pete (of Nunam Iqua, home to 200 residents) from high school, where their teams competed against one another at basketball, among other sports:
Together they attended a fancy-pants, $75-a-head Kwik’pak Yukon River Salmon & Wine Dinner event at Elliott’s Oyster House featuring last year’s properly frozen catch, where Tom put on a colorful Yup’ik coat — a kuspak — and danced. Word has it he’s a real mover and a shaker, and I’m sorry I missed his performance. And word also had it that at an earlier dinner, Stanley was forced to hail a waiter. “Sir!” he called out, “My salmon is raw!” It was seared on the outside, and too rare-centered. As Stanley explains, “I’ve either had salmon cooked, or raw, but not half-and-half.” Rowley, who runs around the country carrying on about such things as how to properly cook a salmon, took a knife to his lunch to show that his “honey- and peppercorn-crusted wild troll-caught Alaskan king salmon” (as it was described on the menu) was cooked just as it should be — all the way through, yet still glistening:
And at $34 a plate, it should have been cooked properly. We all ordered the salmon except for Tom, who had the grilled Asian-style chicken salad ($27). “Two days in a row is enough for me,” he said. Stanley took a couple bites of his fish and rendered his verdict, “I don’t know about you, but this is some of the best salmon I’ve ever had.” He doesn’t usual garnish his catch with preserved lemon, nor bed it on multi-grain rice with stir-fried slivers of asparagus, but he does smoke it, as they lightly do here, so that “it’s got that smoky, aged flavor” Stanley says he prefers. That led to a discussion of how to smoke fish, with Eunice telling Stanley how she and her family “gut ’em and head ’em,” before hanging and drying their salmon in strips. Then she told us all how the Alexies keep their fresh-caught salmon stored in a very cold creek that runs by their house. “Don’t you worry about bears getting them?” I asked. She said they don’t.
That’s when I told them the story about the maurading bear who was terrorizing my friends’ gardens in Bird Creek, Alaska, back when I lived in Anchorage over 20 years ago. And how one day, a pal called and said, “Get up here. Someone finally had enough and shot that bear and we’re having a barbecue.” I wasted no time heading south along Cook Inlet — where I once saw an enormous bear sitting on the bank, posing for camera-toting summer tourists. And in case you were wondering, the bear roast I ate that day was deliciously sweet, which was no surprise given the number of berries and garden-fresh veggies it had eaten that summer. That’s when Tom pulled out his Nikon digital camera to show me the big bear sitting on the airport runway in Emmonak, waiting for his flight down to Seattle.
Eventually our discussion moved on to whether salmon should be “aged” before eating, with Rowley chiming in with a scientific explanation about rigor mortis, and the benefit of icing fish down on the boats, no matter how small those boats are, at just the right time. He’ll be flying up to Alaska to explain more about the proper handling of salmon when he visits six Yukon Delta villages and their fisherfolk next week. “Fish can be too fresh,” noted Stanley, who sits on the board of Kwik’pak Fisheries and owns two fishing boats that contribute to the community’s livelihood. “If you catch the fish and eat it right away,” he opined, “it’s too soft.”
I know someone who begs to differ. “There’s no such thing as salmon that’s too soft, too oily, too smoky or too rare,” says my 13-year-old Alaskan Husky, Maia Wolfe, who never met a fish she didn’t like. “But there is such a thing as too Cryovac’d”:
Want to talk salmon? Taste? Price? Sustainability? The uber-marketing of such fabulously fatty River-specific runs such as those from the Copper River, Yukon River and (coming in July) the Kenai River (where I once saw so many fish swimming upstream while I was fishing I could have walked across the Kenai while stepping on them)? What about farmed vs. wild salmon? Will you be grilling any salmon this weekend? If so, have you got any favorite recipes or cooking tips? Operators are standing by!