A summertime portrait of our mother: fleece jacket sewn on her serger under orange rain bibs over brown Xtratuf boots, all covered in fish scales. Pushing the wind-teased wisps of her blond hair back with the inside of her forearm, bare hands covered in brown sugar, salt and salmon slime. A white-handled fillet knife gripped in one hand, the tail of a sockeye salmon in the other – our mom cutting long strips from a fillet at her fish cleaning table. If there was something our mom was born to do, making smoked salmon had to have been it.
Smoking salmon is a process of patience and skill that is subject to the forces of weather and time. When our parents moved to our homestead, our mom learned to smoked salmon from an Aleut friend named Gassy. Our parents built a smoke house near the beach at Stonewall Place on top of 14 foot pilings so that brown bears couldn’t reach it, even while reaching on their hind legs. Mom had to climb up an extendable ladder to hang fish in the smokehouse, and a barrel stove brought smoke up through a chimney into the small square room.
Traditionally, salmon is smoked in fillets left on the tail and hung over poles or beams in the smokehouse, but but our mom loved smoking king salmon and their thick fillets and high oil content made it difficult to dry out over many days. She began smoking fish with her own technique of cutting the fillets into half inch-wide strips, tying them together with string, and hanging them to dry individually. This method meant that she could utilize the whole fish without waste and ended up with a product that was both carmelized in rich salmon oil, salt and sugar and dried by the perfect combination of wind and smoke.
Before starting on a batch of smoked salmon, our mom took us in the skiff to collect driftwood on neighboring shores to use for the smokehouse fire. She walked the beach with a pocketknife, gouging the bark of logs to see if they had the stringy texture of cottonwood, her favorite flavor of smoke. If they were right, we rolled them down the beach and lifted them into the skiff to take home, chainsaw into smaller pieces, and stack on the wood pile in preparation for the barrel stove. The next step was to clean the salmon our dad brought home, cutting away the bones and tail and stripping the salmon into long thin pieces to soak in a sea salt, brown sugar brine in Rubbermaid totes amidst the beach grass. After brining, we carried the salmon strips down the beach to the the smoke house. We used the top of our hot tub as a tying station – securing two equal sized strips of salmon together with a bit of string, and hanging them over long poles resting on 5 gallon buckets. This process took a full day, with a few breaks for an orange from the root cellar, a cup of tea up at the house, or a Hershey’s chocolate bar shared between the two of us. But someone had to stand guard always, in case a hungry raven, fox or bear wandered down the beach.
Fishermen who tasted our mom’s smoked salmon loved it started trading her fresh fish for a few bags full of strips. She also traded for king crab from boats passing through from the Bering Sea, or gave zip-locks of strips to friends in the village who didn’t have their own smoke houses.
This recipe requires a smokehouse, whole fresh salmon, cottonwood, and a stretch of dry breezy weather, thus may not be accessible for everyone using this cookbook. However, read on to understand the process of smoking salmon the way our family always has – in our mom’s voice. From our cookbook, The Salmon Sisters: Fishing, Feasting and Living in Alaska.