When I open my freezer or visit my pantry this time of year, I’m acutely aware that the subsistence bounty we harvested here in Bristol Bay is tangible proof of a life well led.
Moose roasts wrapped in butcher paper, spruce grouse breasts sliced thin, ready for breakfast, greens blanched, halibut portioned out carefully, and berries in individual pie-sized portions all line the freezer shelves. Pickles, jam, and jellies all preserved in jars fill the pantry. Bins of potatoes still dirty from the garden lay cool on the tile floor. The season for being consciously thankful is here, my freezer is proof.
Of course, there is also an abundance of salmon, the main staple in our diet. There are fillets, steaks, heads, and roe all cleaned and frozen neatly in vacuum sealed bags filling the chest freezer. Buckets of salt fish cure in our cellar, smoked fish and strips are kept chilled or frozen, and then there are the cases and cases of jarred salmon all professing our hard work and our fortune. Truly, these are things to be ever thankful for. I grew up, born and raised in the Matanuska Valley, just north of Anchorage. As kids, we dip-netted and sport caught our salmon, with my Dad spending many summers guiding on the Talkeetna River. I distinctly recall the smell of the Big Chief smoking outside our garage door and the sounds of our dog team barking when they were delivered dinner of boiled leftover fish. My parents hailed from New England, but the tenacity in which they embraced Alaskan life had them well prepared to teach my brothers and I numerous ways to maximize the wonder this life has to offer. Along with the adventures came learning the value of a job well done and finding pride in our work, things I hope to impart to my children.
When a summer job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game landed me in Bristol Bay over 10 years ago, my true love affair with salmon began. I spent that first year counting fish on the Togiak River only to apply for a longer stint in the Dillingham office so that I might spend half my year in the Bay. Soon tallying and counting fish from the enormous commercial fishery wasn’t enough for me—I wanted to be on the deck upon the waves, and somewhere in this quest I met my husband Bronson. Our first adventure was on the F/V Sea Breeze. Nine years, nine cycles of salmon later, we still manage to keep an even keel in our lives on and off the water.
Salmon are intrinsic to our lifestyle. We set our calendar by when we will begin hanging nets for our drift boat, driving pegs for our subsistence site, setting lines, greeting crew who will help get the boat ready, and catching the first king of the summer. Then we launch the boat, work the first sockeye salmon commercial opener, celebrate the peak of the season, catch enough salmon to focus efforts on other foraging and subsistence activities, and haul the boat out. Finally, our crew leaves town, settlement checks for deliveries arrive, the next season’s ADF&G Forecast comes out. We order web for our gill nets, attend the Fish Expo, price adjustments come, our freezer empties. The year begins anew. Our New Year is marked, it seems, by salmon and not the sun’s position in the sky.
The enormity of the sockeye run to Bristol Bay leaves me in wonder and fills me with pride. But, what has helped shape my adult identity even more than salmon fishing are the people who have come into my life because of it. People in rural Alaska are generous with their time and resources. They have taught me to hang gear; to can, salt and make traditional strips from salmon; and how to run my subsistence site. When someone gets a few extra kings and your net pulls up short they share their bounty unerringly. That is the beauty of salmon.
For me, salmon culture—salmon love—is a culture steeped in the love of sharing. This is ever present in the boatyard where an extra set of hands will appear to help troubleshoot an engine malfunction or mending lessons build web anew. On the fishing grounds when radio groups report jumpers to each other, in the joy across tender decks as full brailers of fish are hoisted out of bins or in the inevitable event that someone needs a tow to town (it just might be you). When the fishing slows and winter creeps in, the time for sharing continues further with salmon turning up at every potluck, family dinner, or holiday gathering. Strips are handed to teething babies to gnaw, pickled fish is given as gifts, and so the lists go on.
There is a pervasive symbol in Yupik culture of a hand with a hole in the palm, this is to be a lesson, we do not hold onto our blessings—we share them. They pass through our hands into those of others because that is how we all thrive together. We are to be ever thankful for our bounty and know it is not solely for us. It is meant to be shared. So this season, while we are counting things to be thankful for, as ever, I’ll be counting salmon.
Smoked Salmon Sweet Potato Au Gratin
A FANTASTIC SIDE TO ANY GATHERING OR DECADENT AS A MAIN DISH FOR 6-8 PEOPLE, WITH A SALAD FOR BALANCE
- 4.5 quart baking dish
- 2 cups wild Alaskan smoked or kippered salmon, flaked
- 3 lbs sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/8 thick slices
- 3-4 tablespoons butter, for buttering pan and creating the gratin sauce
- 1/2 cup sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded
- 2 cups Comte cheese, shredded
- 2 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 3 Tablespoons fresh sage, chopped small
- 6 large cloves of garlic, finely shredded
- 4 eggs, lightly whisked
- 2 teaspoons Bay seasoning – I love the blend from Summit Spice and Tea
- a few pinches of flaked sea salt
- fresh crack pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit with the top rack positioned in the middle of the oven. Generously butter the bottom and sides of the baking dish and sprinkle the cheddar cheese evenly across the bottom.
In a medium size saucepan combine 2 tablespoons of butter, the heavy cream, garlic, sage, 1/2 teaspoon Bay seasoning, and a pinch of sea salt. Bring cream sauce to a simmer whisking often. Continue to simmer cream sauce for 10 minutes allowing the sauce to reduce in volume by roughly 1/5. Allow sauce to cool for 3-5 minutes. Meanwhile in a small bowl gently whisk the eggs to break up the yolk, then rapidly whisk the eggs into the slightly cooled cream sauce and set aside.
In the buttered and cheese laden baking dish layer 2-3 layers of sliced sweet potatoes working in a spiral pattern slightly overlapping the edges as you go, until the pan is 1/3 filled. Sprinkle the potatoes with 1/2 teaspoon Bay seasoning, fresh cracked pepper, and a slight pinch of sea salt, then top with 1/3 of the flaked smoked salmon and 1/2 cup of the shredded Comte cheese. Pour 1/3 of the cream sauce evenly over top.
Work to fill the pan 2/3 full with spiraling potato slices, seasoning again with 1/2 teaspoons Bay seasoning, fresh cracked pepper and a slight pinch of sea salt. Top with 3/4 cup of the shredded Comte cheese and an additional 1/3 of the flaked smoked salmon, pour over another 1/3 of the cream sauce and proceed filling the remainder of the pan with spiraled potato slices stopping approximately 1/4 inch from the rim.
Top potatoes with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon Bay seasoning, fresh cracked pepper, another slight pinch of sea salt, the final third of the smoked salmon and the remaining cream sauce. Holding aside the remaining 3/4 cup of shredded Comte cheese.
Compress the gratin by pushing down across the top and cover the pan with either a tight fitting lid or a buttered sheet of tinfoil. Place into the oven and bake for 40 minutes, remove lid or foil checking to ensure the potatoes are tender, then top with remaining 3/4 cup of Comte cheese and return to the oven uncovered to bake and brown for an additional 25 minutes. Pan contents will be bubbling hot when removed from oven, allow to cool slightly before serving.
Find this article and many more articles sharing Salmon Love at The Salmon Project’s salmon life website!