On the F/V Stanley K, our family’s 58-ft salmon seiner, we lived and worked for 90 days this summer. 90 (days at sea) x 5 (hungry fishermen) x 3 (meals per day) = 1,350 (meals prepared and eaten this season). Plus, innumerable snacks (an impossible amount of snacks).
Upon arrival in King Cove, our crew got settled on the boat in early June. Gearing up for this past season, fishermen faced many unknowns due to Covid-19 along with the usual ones that come along with the job–would Alaska’s fisheries be able to harvest and process our wild catch safely? Would we face disruptions in the supply chain? Would we be able to get wild fish to all the people hunkered down at home who needed healthy protein? Would we be paid enough for the fish we caught? Would there be fish to catch? Would our families and the families in our remote working waterfronts stay safe? Would the weather be forgiving and our bodies up to the task?
After a long day traveling from Anchorage to Cold Bay three hours by plane, and Cold Bay to King Cove three hours by boat–negotiating how to greet old fishing friends in masks and without hugs–it felt good to settle back into harbor life and the familiar shapes of the boat–the rectangular galley, the triangular fo’c’sle, the sliver of a bunk. Every boat’s crew was to quarantine together on their fishing vessels for 2 weeks, fly their black and yellow Lima flag in the rigging to signify that the boat was under quarantine, and follow fleet and state guidelines for routine temperature checks while at sea. Fishermen traveling from out of town were tested for Covid-19 at the village clinic and were careful to stay on our boats. Together, we dug into the routine of boat work, giddy to be doing something physical and familiar after months of uneasy lockdown back home. We felt collectively relieved to be with other people again in real time, even if it would be the same four people for the next 90 days in a s mall space, in a wild place.
Good food keeps us going, we all know this well. This summer especially, eating good food felt critical. For our bodies, after 20 hour days of physical, repetitive, hard work–yes. But also, for many reasons beyond basic necessity–for comfort, inspiration, creativity, and conversations beyond the pandemic that had interrupted and overtaken everything else. To feel normal. To feel better. To feel the physical joy of eating something that is simply delicious and fresh and homemade.
Our food arrived on the dock a few days after we did, shrink-wrapped and palletized. Our bulk order from Costco was driven from Anchorage to Homer and loaded onto our beloved state ferry the M/V Tustumena, sailed three days to King Cove where fishermen and residents eagerly awaited food and supplies for the summer. We tied our boat up to the crane dock and loaded the pallets down onto the deck, unpacking cereal and crackers and rice and canned soup hand over hand into the galley to be sorted into cupboards and cabinets and secured for the relentless ocean swell. 90 days of food is an overwhelming amount of food. Finding a place for everything on the boat is like a game of Tetris. If you’re out of room, you make room–under your bunk, in the wheelhouse, on the roof–and then you have to remember where you put it. The first meal is also overwhelming–what do you make when you have every ingredient in the world staring at you? (Grilled cheese, tomato soup, don't stress).
Out at sea, the cooking strategy goes something like this: eat things before they go bad. Eat lots of fish and every day, but never waste it. Spread out fresh veggies into as many meals as possible. Cook fast, timing is more important than taste. Cook lots, leftovers are good – snacks are important. Dream up meals together, thinking of what to cook is usually the hardest part. Talk about food all day, get the crew excited. Experiments are always welcome, they will be eaten pretty much no matter what. Pull things out of the freezer the night before. The best ingredients are fresh from the sea.
On our boat, we all pitch in on the cooking. Inspiration strikes one of us, and the others help prep or pull cans out of bins, or fillet a fish, or clean up afterwards. We have a handful of cookbooks onboard, but cooking usually takes the free form of a concept plus ingredients on hand and a little improvisation. A few regulars on the menu this season:
- Leftover rice pressed in a hot cast iron skillet with butter, turmeric and garlic and cooked about 8 minutes, or until the bottom turns crispy–topped with toasted nuts and any fresh herbs on hand.
- Halibut sautéed with pesto, eaten on top of buttery, cheesy pasta.
- Ducks slow roasted in the oven for 3 hours, stuffed with homemade sausage and apple stuffing.
- Sweet potatoes, sliced thin and spread on a baking sheet. Sprinkled with salt and cinnamon and baked at 400 degrees until crispy.
- Sourdough pancakes topped with rhubarb sauce and plain yoghurt.
- Blueberry apple Dutch Babies.
- Roasted pork loin with homemade rhubarb, mint, onion chutney.
- Pop Tarts (strawberry, sometimes brown sugar).
Where we fish, its difficult to get produce. Anything fresh comes via barge from Seattle, and by that time it has likely already seen better days and is extremely expensive In the village stores. We keep a jar of sprouts in the galley window and throw them on sandwiches, or use them as a garnish, for something green. We also try to keep a few boat herbs alive through the summer. We had mint, basil, and cilantro growing in the wheelhouse, which produced about enough leaves to throw into our water bottles every day to make boat water more palatable. Our sourdough is our boat pet; we feed it every 3 days and make pancakes with it on our off days. We love pancakes. We love to add canned pumpkin, or fresh picked salmon berries or chocolate chips to them. We pour rhubarb sauce and real Vermont Maple Syrup on top (one of our crew brings his own jug from Burlington!).
Our best meals always come from the sea. One lucky day we cooked and cracked king crab until our fingers were sore. We made king crab mac and cheese baked with breadcrumbs, king crab eggs benedict, and king crab cioppino. We harvested sea urchins off the rocks at low tide and ate them on sticky rice, with pickled veggies, rice wine vinegar and furikake seasoning. We jigged for halibut on anchor, and cooked our catch in cheesy enchiladas for dinner. We caught an octopus and made it into delicious “tako” poke. Of course, we ate salmon. So much salmon our skin got soft and our hair silky. We made lox with a sockeye, coated in salt and brown sugar and dill, pressed down with a big rock found on the beach. We made pickled fish with red onions and peppercorns. We made salmon coconut curry soup with fresh lime juice, and salmon chowder. One of the best parts about being a fisherman is living so close to the source of good wild food.
Of course, other boats out at sea were eating well too and shared with us; Prince William Sound Spot Prawns, smoked salmon dried in the sea breeze, fireweed jelly, pastries and cakes from tenders. And care packages from our mom–packed with citrus and fresh plums from a distant summertime, jars of blueberry jam packed in the latest newspapers, good chocolate bars, boxes of tea and ginger candies to help keep seasickness away.
On days off, when boat chores were finished and we had time to ourselves, we wandered out of the harbor and into the hills, sitting in salmonberry and blueberry bushes, until our fingers turned blue and our buckets were full. Free food, in Alaska, is often the most delicious food.
Our season came to an end, and we ate our way through almost everything–even the 108 ounce can of Stagg Chili, serving size 12. The freezer filled back up with the fish and berries we planned to bring back home with us for the wintertime, and we hope the sourdough will stay cozy on its shelf until we resurrect it again in June. As we transition back onto land and the many ways life and home feels different now, we are reminded of how lucky we are that good food stays with us always. We are looking forward to these next few weeks of fall–it is harvest time in Alaska. Freezers are filling up with fish and game and pantries overflowing with preserved berries and canned vegetables, and gardens are being picked before the first frost. There’s a beautiful energy in the air, can you feel it? Can you taste it?
For many of the meals mentioned above, you can find recipes in our cookbook: The Salmon Sisters: Fishing, Feasting and Living in Alaska
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