Salmon Time

Our correspondent ventures to Alaska to learn when to eat wild salmon—and how to find it even when it’s not in season

This month is the tail end of the season for most fresh-caught wild salmon. Summertime wild salmon is prized because it is at its peak of physical development. Its muscle is toned and its fat content is at its lifetime high, after a few years of foraging in the open seas to build strength for the arduous trek upriver, at the end of which the fish will spawn exactly where it was born. Its color is at its brightest and rosiest. Caught sooner, in the sea while it is still feeding, the salmon’s texture will be softer. Caught later, during its voyage upstream, the fish’s color will be off and the fat stores depleted.

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"The Five Main Pacific Salmon"
And how they taste. By Corby Kummmer

Generations of diners have feasted on this seasonal bounty, but dams and other habitat degradation have made vast stocks of Pacific Northwest salmon, and all wild Northeast Atlantic salmon, virtually extinct. So freshly caught wild salmon is available legally for only a brief time each year. Chefs set their calendars to the appearance of the first wild salmon with the kind of excitement once generated by the arrival of Beaujolais nouveau when French wines were still in vogue. If anything, chefs are more impatient than ever for wild-salmon season to start, and more reluctant to see it end, and for good reason: farmed Atlantic salmon, which in just twenty-five years has overtaken the world market, is almost always mushy, bland, flabby—criminally dull. I gave up ordering it several years ago, when I decided that no amount of pineapple salsa could render it acceptable, let alone enjoyable.

Yet two winters ago I began noting a curious phenomenon in the Northeast, where Maine is known for its salmon farms and the commercial harvesting of wild Atlantic salmon has been illegal for years: wild salmon turning up on menus in December, February, April—completely outside the usual season. Chefs scoffed at my suggestion that the fish had been frozen, insisting that their irreproachable vendors knew the fish to be both wild and shipped without ever having seen a freezer. (Not that frozen is necessarily a bad thing, as I learned years ago when first looking into the subject: if frozen quickly and properly, fish can taste fresher than bruised, badly chilled fish that waits days to reach a processor.) But clear frauds—farmed salmon passed off as wild in supermarkets, as discovered in stings by The New York Times and others—made me skeptical. Those frauds, and my own curiosity about when wild salmon was really available, made me wonder what “wild salmon” really means now. What is the best way to catch and keep it, and when is the best time to eat it?

In June I went to Alaska, home of the world’s largest wild-salmon industry, to find out what the fish looks like up close and taste some of it before it boarded a plane. I attended Copper River Nouveau, an annual benefit for the Prince William Sound Science Center, in Cordova, a former mining depot and now fishing capital accessible only by boat or plane. At the Saturday-night dinner, thirty pounds of donated king salmon fillets, the most valuable kind (last year these fillets were selling at a retail price of $25 a pound), were the main attraction, complemented by a lobster-saffron sauce. The simple but elegant meal was cooked and served by Jack Amon and Van Hale, chef and manager respectively of Marx Bros. Cafe, in Anchorage, often called Alaska’s best restaurant. Amon made the donated fish go a long way, serving it in three-ounce portions, which were in fact ample, given its richness: outside of smoked salmon or salmon packed in oil, king salmon is the lushest salmon experience a diner can have. Brash and fun-loving characters, Amon and Hale come to the benefit almost every year, happy to donate their services; they love Cordova and its salmon. Drinking from the jeroboam of WesMar Olivet Lane pinot noir they had taken by hand on the plane from Anchorage, they clearly appreciated the fisherwomen swishing down the aisles wearing padded silver fish costumes, attracting bids for the art and books and such at the science center’s benefit auction. I, meanwhile, gobbled all the leftover pieces of salmon I could snatch while pretending to help clean up.

Like many beautiful, remote places, Cordova is full of characters, many of them erudite eccentrics and most of them united by a passion for fishing and the environment. They speak eloquently about their fishing boats and about which netting and processing method is best—everyone of every age seems to know a lot about fishing. People come for a summer, work at a fish-processing plant or on a fishing boat or volunteer at the science center, and decide to stay. (Winter, of course, is the challenge, and many of the fishermen without families spend a few months each year in, for instance, Mexico.) There’s a thriving independent bookstore/café/art gallery run by the former mayor and his wife; a small museum where you can learn about the town’s mining past and see photos of the first Iceworm Festival, in 1961; and excellent general and hardware stores.

Unless you go to Copper River Nouveau, or the Wild! Salmon Festival, in July, however, finding fresh salmon in Cordova is tough. Almost all of it gets shipped to market, like coffee beans in coffee-producing countries. You might be able to order some at the restaurant of the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, a former motel now being remodeled by a retired crab fisherman and his wife. But in a local market the closest you’ll come to fresh salmon are the superb and generous chunks of lightly smoked sockeye—which I prefer to king for its meatier texture and more authoritative, if slightly less rich, flavor—or coho, another good-flavored species, canned at plants in town and sold at nearly every Alaskan souvenir shop. (You can buy jars of a particularly good one—cold smoked over alder wood by William Bailey III, a fisherman and now an owner of a fish-processing plant—at Locals who don’t fish but want salmon make informal or barter arrangements with their fishing neighbors.

Cordova needs salmon to survive, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game works to manage the wild stocks carefully. The science center, which conducts research on salmon populations, benefited from an influx of funding in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989 (the center administers the Oil Spill Recovery Institute). The spill changed the life of the city, as it did the whole of Prince William Sound. Salmon stocks came back after the spill, though other previously important fishing stocks, including herring—smaller than the familiar Atlantic kind, and valuable in the Asian market for its roe—did not, or not in numbers to sustain commercial fishing. Today salmon fishing is permitted only during strictly regulated periods, or “openers,” which are announced by the local Department of Fish and Game office only after it determines that enough salmon have begun the trip up the Copper River to keep populations stable. The office counts almost every fish using sonar equipment placed near the mouth of the river. The fishermen pay thousands of dollars for their permits, and rely on the money they make during fishing season—unusually long on the Copper River, from roughly mid-May until October—to last through the year. A friend who is in the industry told me that in an extremely good season a successful fisherman can make $125,000, but more like $50,000 in an average one, and even less in a bad one, when stocks are low and openers few.

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. 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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