The spread of food on the table amazed me.
There we were, in Cordova, Alaska — a tiny fishing town of barely 2500 people — in someone’s home, about to eat dinner. Any other marketing association would have taken us out to a fabulous restaurant for our first night in town. Except, there aren’t any fabulous restaurants in Cordova. There are plenty of warm homes, filled with people gathered over food, the windows steamed up from all the talking, and nowhere else to go. Beth opened her home to us, invited a bunch of fishermen and spouses, and we four food bloggers (plus Danny and Lucy) were treated to a feast.
On the table? Salmon. Plenty of it. We were, after all, in Copper River salmon country. The rich dark red flesh showed up smoked, poached, roasted, and made into jerky. There were other dishes too — including slow-stirred polenta for me and a gluten-free apple tart for dessert — but what gleamed on that bright tablecloth most clearly was the salmon.
Salmon is at the heart of everything in Cordova.
Even though we landed in Cordova only a few days into September, we were greeted by gale-force winds and dark skies. That’s the thing about Alaska: nature prevails. After we landed at the tiniest airport I have ever seen, we stepped outside to see sky. Mountains. Clouds. Green trees. A road that began at the edge of town and stopped 50 miles later. And mostly, sky.
This is a town where people seem to know their shaken fists at the sky do not accomplish much of anything in the face of the unexpected. When we visited a salmon packing plant, Beth introduced us to the owner. She asked if he was worried about the days upon days of crazy weather. You see, you can only reach Cordova by air or ferry. That road doesn’t go anywhere but back and forth. So, with the wind howling at nearly 100 miles an hour, the rain pelting down on the face like staccato, the ferry couldn’t run and couldn’t take the cases of salmon to the boats coming down to the lower 48. Any other owner might have been pulling out his hair.
This guy? Laconic and calm, he said, “I can’t do anything about it, so I’m fine. I learned long ago to not spend any time worrying about the things over which I have no control. That’s most of life. The winds will stop.”
This, to me, seemed like Alaska.
Cordova is a fishing town. Grey skies or blue, those boats are loaded and ready to go as soon as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says a run of salmon is open for the next 24 hours.
If you have never eaten Copper River salmon before, I hope you have the chance soon. For years, Danny and I have eaten wild salmon from Alaska almost exclusively. (We’re lucky enough to live near Seattle, where it’s easy to find Alaskan salmon.) I can’t eat farmed salmon. It doesn’t taste as good, or feel as firm, or have that deep red flesh of a salmon that has swum from its spawning ground to the ocean and back again.
Salmon has a season and we wait for Alaskan salmon season to begin every spring before we begin eating fresh salmon again. (We eat smoked salmon, and flash-frozen fish, and the salmon we cured ourselves, through the winter.) It seems funny to me to demand salmon all year. Waiting for it, like asparagus or peas, makes spring seem exciting.
Cordova is one of the most astonishing communities we have ever visited. Everyone in town — and I do mean everyone — is involved in the Copper River salmon season. But what’s astonishing is that this isn’t the story of fishermen (and women — there are plenty of women fishermen in Cordova) out to earn as much money as they can. Fishermen in Cordova work with the scientists at the research center and the governmental officials who keep track of the spawning and the number of fish running, the ones who decide how many fish can be caught in any one run. There’s no great divide between the people making money and the regulators. They’re working together.
On our last night in Cordova, I asked one of the older fisherman, a thoughtful man who also helps to run the science center, “What are your hopes for Copper River salmon for the next ten years?”
He told me, “We’re not thinking about the next 10 years. We’re thinking about what we can all do for Copper River salmon for the next 200 years.”
It’s actually written into the Alaska constitution that “…fish be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle.” Fish. In the constitution.
Alaskan fishing is sustainable food in action. We like supporting the communities like this by buying their fish.
Cordova is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been.
This is where your salmon comes from.
Even the artwork in Cordova is centered on the salmon.
That top painting was made by a woman named Pat McGuire. She lives in Cordova half the year (in Washington State the rest of the year), where she paints. She’s also a salmon fishermen. Her paintings are full of movement, luminous, and evocative of the experience of living in Cordova.
We were lucky. We learned how to do Gyotaku prints from Pat herself. Gyotaku is a centuries-old tradition of making a print with fish. It began when fishermen brought in their haul but could not brag about the size of the fish, due to Japanese custom. Painting the salmon with ink, then laying delicate paper over the fish, rubbing and pressing until the fish imprint is left — this is Gyotaku. The salmon had been prepped for us. Each of us painted our salmon the colors that called to us, and then we made aprons.
Lucy loves wearing hers, many months later.
The woman on the left is Beth Poole, the director for Copper River Salmon Marketing Association. That sounds like a big group, doesn’t it? Mostly, it’s Beth. She runs everything, with a part-time assistant, while being the mama to two small boys. (Lu loved them.) She’s the one who brought us to Cordova, who picked us up from the airport, invited us to her home, took us around the town, and drove us everywhere. Before our flight out, she took us out on that road to nowhere. Finally, the sun had emerged from the clouds after days of storms. Giddy at the warmth and the joyful time we had spent together, everyone in the car encouraged Beth to go faster, to splash through that giant puddle.
Too bad that flooded the engine.
Luckily, after a few flustered moments, Beth spotted a couple of moose hunters up the road. They came by with the right tools, and some drying agent they had in their car, and got us driving again.
I love Alaska.
Through our few days there, we ate salmon.
That’s salmon roe, which had just been harvested before us, then packed and sent home with us for lunch. Um, okay. We were invited to the home of one of the top fishermen in Cordova, a lovely woman who heads to Mexico every winter. (I want to say that the women who fish in Cordova call themselves fishermen. They will not abide fisherwomen.) She had broiled salmon with garlic for us, lay out warm smoked salmon with cheese and crackers, and that roe. Lu ate a plate of smoked salmon. We all talked, happy in the sunlight and the gathering.
She and Beth explained that Cordova is the potluck capital of the world. “In the winter, when there’s no fishing, and it’s dark most of the day, there’s nothing else to do but gather in each other’s homes and bring food.”
I don’t know that I could ever live in Cordova — that darkness in the winter would kill me — but Danny and I both are thrilled that we had this chance to visit. Now, every time we eat Copper River salmon, we’ll think of Beth, and her boys, the moose hunters who fixed our truck, the moments Lu and I had on the bank of the river watching bright-red fish return to the same spot where they had been born years before, the incredible views Danny had in the prop plane that flew over the Copper River Delta, the pelting rain, the laughter, and that gathering.
This salmon tastes even better than it did before.
We were graciously brought to Cordova, Alaska by the Copper River Salmon Marketing Association. The opinions expressed here are my own.
SMOKED SALMON SPREAD
You don’t have to live in Alaska, or the Pacific Northwest, to buy Copper River salmon. There are some good sources for buying flash-frozen fillets. And Costco sells boxes of smoked Copper River salmon from the same plant we visited in Cordova. Now, for the holidays, this would be a wonderful gift.
This spread, made with oil-packed Copper River smoked salmon, would be the quiet talk of any holiday party you still might be throwing. You can use any smoked salmon you can find, of course, but the Copper River salmon has such a rich taste that you might need to throw in more seasonings if you use another kind. (It also has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other kind of salmon.) Use thick smoked salmon, not the thin slices of lox. And you might want to play with the fresh horseradish. I like a little heat. So do our friends. But if you’re wary of that gulp of heat from horseradish, take this down to 1 tablespoon instead.
8 ounces smoked salmon
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces sour cream
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tablespoons fresh horseradish
salt and pepper
Put the smoked salmon in a food processor and pulse until it is entirely broken up into small pieces, like crumbs. Add the rest of the ingredients and let the food processor run. Taste and add more seasoning if needed, understanding that the flavors will build over time. Run the food processor again. Let it run for a good 3 minutes so the salmon spread is smooth.
Refrigerate for at least three hours to allow the flavors to develop and the spread to thicken a bit.