Salmon Extravaganza, Part I

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Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Sand Point isn't a tourist destination. Its modern incarnation was built for people who catch and process fish, and most of the buildings are low, new, and look prefab. (On a boat we were taken to see a town on Unga Island, built during the turn-of-the-century Gold Rush and finally abandoned in the 1970s. Its clapboard houses were weathered and sinking slowly into the soft volcanic soil and looked, as Auden said of his face, like wedding cakes left out in the rain.) There's essentially one paved road, and it leads from the airport to the harbor, site of the large Trident processing plant.

"Everyone here is in the fishing business and everyone is related," Carol Foster, a native Sand Pointer, told us when we boarded a yellow school bus to take a tour of the town. This is something that can be done in short order. There are very few public buildings: the Harbor Cafe, a blue freestanding garagelike building at the harbor; a Chinese restaurant; a nice bar; an even nicer and new school; and a PX-style supermarket and general market, where we were told to marvel at the six-dollar-a-pound nectarines and island prices. We city folk didn't marvel. With typical succinctness, Marion called them New York prices.

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Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Everything is low. Trees snap in the strong and constant winds of the Aleutians. The land is tundra, covered with moss and low scrub. As with peat, which it looks like, you can sink several feet without warning. The organizers gave each of us the state shoe: a pair of Xtratuf boots, high as Wellies but much warmer, solider, and a dull tan rather than bright green. We all fell in love with these boots—you really do need a pair—and could think of no finer swag. The winds that keep everything low also carve grottoes and arches in the rock outcroppings around the many islands, almost as dramatic as the limestone calanques of Sardinia. On a later boating excursion we were told to look out for "elephants," high narrow arches forming, with a bit of imagination that took the denser among us (I was the densest) a while to use, the head and trunk. Oddly, herds of buffalo still roam the hills of the tundra, and odder still they are said to be the descendants of three buffaloes stolen in Oregon, one of them pregnant, that escaped a boat in 1955 and swam to shore. (I have yet to follow up with the elderly local who evidently knows the story.)

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Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Most spectacular for us, there were several families of bald eagles, which roosted on telephone poles as we passed. One nest is beside the Russian Orthodox church, Bob Barnett, a local fisherman, told us; nests can reach six feet across. So how big are the eggs? "I don't want to get close enough to know." Pets need to be kept indoors, paritcularly cats, and people aren't immune, either, especially if they inadvertently come close to a nest. Ravens, fellow carrion-eating raptors, are big as wild turkeys. No wonder puffins, of which we saw dozens on the boat (their wings beat like hummingbirds) nest in rookeries in the high, jagged island cliffs.

We stayed at Carl and Elma's Marine View, a bed and breakfast whose owners, Carl and Elma Dirkers, gave us a welcoming lunch that was a high point of the trip. As I was leaving Sand Point, they told me that they'd met online, and that after a long correspondence Carl had spent a month in the Philippines meeting Elma's family before bringing her over. (In an email responding to my question of whether I could mention this, Carl said yes, adding: "Quality people do this when circumstances line up, and we are not crib robbers, misfits, or exploiters of these women.") Carl also works as director of special education for the school district. Practically everyone we met holds down several jobs, and one person can also hold several official roles in town government. We didn't talk to any of the seasonal workers who sleep in barrack-like apartment buildings and essentially live in the processing plants while they're there.

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Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

The welcome lunch was surpassed only by the farewell banquet Michael will describe in an accompanying post: fresh salad and vegetables, the luxury of which we already knew from the store to appreciate; fresh-baked rolls; and endless quantities of baked sockeye—three Pyrex pans full, the fish wrapped in foil. This was really the visitor's dream come true: all the extremely fresh sockeye you could eat. Though I'm in the minority, I much prefer sockeye, with its intense, deep color and meaty, firm texture (good for canning) to the richer, soft, fattier, pinker king.

Elma had baked the thick, dark-salmon—they vividly define the color, and make king, not to mention paint-chip, feed-fed farmed salmon look anemic—simply, with onions and a bit of parsley in foil packages. She'd also cooked it till it was very firm, the texture of kippered salmon. My fellow guests were sparing, as if they were jaded, or plain polite. I was not. I kept going back and cleaning up the ragged pieces others had left, standing on ceremony. Then I dove into the one unopened foil package, and kept going back to that, too. I still dream of those three panfuls.

Part II tomorrow: Hauling up salmon and watching chef Michael Cimarusti clean them—and a post from him on catching and cooking his own.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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