My history with the wild Alaska salmon is a bit complicated, and in a way–includes pure ignorance—but, overall with a great sense of appreciation and love.
The salmon and I go way back—even before I met the husband. However, he has become a central and integral part of this story.
When my family first arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska my Dad had already situated our home at the Army post. I remember my first Alaska summer when he took off to go dip netting in Chitina with his buddies. He was gone for the entire weekend, and when they returned, I remember all of them laying out the tarp in the yard, and then unloading the masses of salmon–several were king salmon. There must have been over a hundred that they caught altogether. And, typical of fishermen (and Filipino men at that), they split the fish evenly among each other to bring home to their families.
I was in awe of their hard work, but at the time not aware of what it took for them to catch all of that salmon.
“Hoy, that’s expensive fish right there, Jeng!” my Dad said.
“Ok, I get itttt,” I said—while rolling my eyes in my mind.
“You know—men died to get fish like that! Kasi (because) the river is the death of the men that go fishing there!” He told me dramatically. He was absolutely correct. Throughout the years, there have been fatal accidents that occurred in Chitina. The river is unforgiving.
So, we had fish for that summer. Still, I had no appreciation for it nor a deep understanding of how expensive salmon can be until years later. I was 19-years old, and I’ll leave it to that to explain such ignorance.
Then, I met the future husband. And, I’m compelled that I must present these stories because they contribute to the overall snobbery.
When I first met the future husband, I wanted to spend my every waking moments with that boy (at the time), and he loved all things outdoors. So I told myself, I will try and do the things that he loves because I was that kind of girl who was more than willing to take on the opportunity to expand my knowledge of all things (sort of)–but really, I just wanted to be with him.
There was one time when he decided to go fishing on the Chena river with his father’s canoe. I recall that I was under the impression that it was going to be a boat. He picked me up that day with the canoe attached to the truck, and as he pulled up into the driveway, the first thought that ran through my mind was, “what the fuck? I am going to die in that. I’m going to drown and will never see my 20s.” And, of course, that day I decided to take a book with me so that while he maneuvers the “boat” I could be reading and enjoying that midnight sun that Fairbanks is known for.
Well, it wasn’t a boat. It was a skinny canoe and how the hell am I supposed to be relaxed when all I kept thinking about was that thing capsizing killing us both.
“What?” he asked.
“What?” I asked back.
“What’s that look on your face?” he asked me.
“Ohhh, nothing. I was just thinking if we packed some mosquito repellant?” I said trying to mask my concern.
“Yeah, I have the kit in the canoe. We’re good,” he answered.
Ok, at least he was prepared, I thought–and off we went.
Long story short: we were out there and I was dying from the mosquito bites. I was attempting to look relaxed while reading a book–the difficulty was that the canoe doesn’t allow for such relaxation–and not to mention the vampire-like mosquitoes that rudely kept attacking us as if we were a buffet laid out for a feast.
After what seemed like hours, he finally caught a king salmon. And, it went down like this:
“Grab the small bat!” he yelled.
“What? Grab what bat?!?” I asked back as that stupid ass canoe rocked back and forth.
“Grab the small bat and use it!” he yelled again as he motioned at the salmon.
I was more tempted to take that small bat and beat him instead.
“No! I can’t fucking do that!” I yelled back.
“Just do it,” he said more calmly.
I won’t go into details how gently I supposedly used that bat. Let’s just say that he took the bat from me.
When we canoe’d back to the truck with his catch, I was literally having thoughts in my mind on how to break it off with him: should I just walk home and leave him? Or should I sneak off while he’s loading the truck so that when turned around, I’d be like David Copperfield that disappeared out of thin air. At that point, I would have walked the miles to get back home, and I didn’t fear if a moose had chased me all the way there.
But, I didn’t.
I went with him so that he can drop off the fish at his parents.
Did I break it off with him? No, because there are more of these stories.
And plus I was stupid, crazy, in-love with him.
When we were finally married and into the first few years of the honeymoon, I asked him why he never took me dip netting in Chitina? And, after pestering him with relentless questions—he finally took me. I was seriously under the impression (just as I had been with the canoe–should have known better at this point) that there would be beautiful cabins, and that Chitina was a gorgeous place to reflect and appreciate nature.
When we finally got there, I was bitch slapped by reality. Cabins? Uh, no. Camping in a tent? Apparently.
I remember that he found a fishing spot on this sandy bank. We settled there and after a few hours of watching him fish with his friend, I quite loudly asked, “where’s the bathroom, Babe?”
“Follow that path where we walked on,” he yelled back without turning around as he was too busy setting up the net.
So, I walked on the path.
“Where is it again? I don’t see the building?!?” I yelled at him from where I stood.
“Keep walking!” he yelled back.
I walked a few more steps. I looked around, and still only trees and bushes were around me. I thought, “this jackass is just downright blind! Where is the restroom building?!?” And, by jackass–I meant him—not me.
“Babe, where is it!?!?!” I yelled back.
“Look to your left and then look down!” he yelled for the final time and laughed.
I looked down.
I found the “bathroom”.
I wanted to kill him.
It was the first and the last time I went to Chitina. We did go home with with a bounty of salmon, and no I did not use the bathroom for number 2 at all.
But, not all stories were about the husband and our fishing expeditions. There was one time where I did attempt to get on a charter boat in Valdez to go fishing. The husband gave me dramamin to help with nausea, and then he was informed that the charter was cancelled due to 30-foot swells. He soon realized that he gave me too much dramamin when I couldn’t feel my legs at breakfast, and I was seeing five images of everything (i.e. five plates of my breakfast on the table). He carried me out of the restaurant and the next thing, I knew, I woke up in Fairbanks.
That was the last time I saw Valdez or attempted to go fishing.
As the kids grew up, especially the boys, he rarely took them to Chitina because as my Dad had mentioned, it was dangerous. There were lives taken by that area, and the husband is quite particular and meticulous when it comes to safety. He’s taken the boys to Chitina when they got older, and throughout the years, he’s taken all three kids fishing along the Kenai (Kenai, Alaska) where it was much safer.
My job? I was the one taking the photos, and in between catching the husband and the kids catching salmon, I was quite content sitting on a chair and reading my book.
It was years later when I travelled for my job at the time where I learned the term “salmon snob.” My colleagues and I were sitting in a restaurant at the Captain Cook hotel in downtown Anchorage in the middle of winter, and we were all drinking a glass of wine trying to unwind from a day of meetings. As we were reading through the menu I said, “I think I’ll get the salmon.”
“Oh, Jen.. no, you can’t order that,” my friend Kate said.
“Why not?” I asked. I didn’t feel like eating steak, or pasta, or chicken.
“Don’t you know? We shouldn’t eat salmon when it’s not fresh. I grew up in Juneau, and we’re all salmon snobs. Anyone from Alaska should be a salmon snob,” Kate said. And, I laughed because there is no one I know who can deliver a serious and practical line the way Kate does. I’ve been very fortunate to have women like Kate around in my life. She then explained the many reasons for being a salmon snob.
Every Alaskan who understands the work behind fishing for salmon should also have a deep sense of appreciation for the way salmon should be prepared and consumed. The truth is that we live in a state where the winters are brutal and unrelenting–and yet, to have the privilege to fish in a beautiful state should never be taken for granted. And, not to mention fresh salmon just taste different.
Those reasons stuck with me.
For years now, I have been a salmon snob. I won’t order salmon at a restaurant—unless it’s a sashimi at a very good sushi restaurant.
This summer, I was a bit worried that the husband will lose out on fishing at Chitina. The state closed the area down due to shortage of salmon. We found out about it while we were in Colorado. When they finally opened the area back up again, the husband and his friends took a charter and got to fish a few weekends ago. They were able to come home with a haul (over 80 salmon in all). The husband and one of the guys each caught a king salmon in their nets. Hems Charter even posted a photo of him and the king salmon he caught.
I’ve become more appreciative throughout the years of the love for fishing. While you’ll never find me casting the line or holding on to that massive dip net—you will find me in the kitchen formulating many different recipes of cooking that salmon. Most importantly, I am reminded of all the good memories embedded with fishing.
Except for that incident with the small bat—that one, I’d prefer to tuck away–the way one would tuck a Nordstrom receipt in a long forgotten handbag.
To express my appreciation for salmon–I’ve included my fool proof baked salmon recipe–after all these nostalgic photos, of course.
Fishing through the years
The Husband, Chitna, and a King Salmon
My Fool Proof Salmon Recipes (with variations):
There are so many ways to cook salmon–but the rule has always been: the salmon is the star, and every thing else is the supporting role. That said–I make sure that the majority of the ingredients are fresh (and for the most part organic). I use a great deal of the fresh herbs from the herb garden as I feel that it’s a good way to honor the salmon. The husband catches it, and I season it with what I have in the herb garden. The dried spices also add amazing flavor. For salt, I am a lover of Maldon Sea Salt (thanks to the Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson). In fact, I’ve been inspired throughout the years of Nigella’s cooking (have you seen my Pavlova, and Trifle blogs?), and her approach to making the kitchen a sanctuary of happiness.
Therefore, here you go–Salmon Snobbery at its most “basic.”
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Fresh Tarragon (chopped)
Kerry Gold Irish (a few knobs here and there)
Salt and Pepper
Fresh Thai Basil
Sesame Seed oil
Sal and Pepper
The marinade: sesame oil, rice vinegar, a dash of dark soy sauce, brown sugar, fresh ginger, chopped green onion, salt and pepper. Mix all these ingredients. Pour all over the salmon (already cleaned and in a container), and marinate for an hour or so before baking.
- Make sure that scales have been removed from the skin, and all that slimy good has been removed.
- Take a tweezer (one that is no longer used for your brows), and pluck each individual salmon bone. It is not good etiquette to leave a bone in a filet (snobbery at its finest right there!)
- After rinsing the salmon one last time, make sure to pat the salmon (flesh and skin) dry with a paper towel.
To Bake (en papillote method):
- Wrap each filet or steak salmon in an aluminum foil or parchment paper.
- Bake at 350-degree oven for 20-25 minutes.
- Serve with salad, rice, whatever your heart desires.