A quick stop at Day’s Market for a bag of ice was the daily de rigueur in the sailboat days of our early marriage. No refrigerator on the Ericson 30 we called home, just a deep insulated box under the speck of formica counter that needed constant replenishment to keep our chardonnay chilled and sundries shivery.
It had been a long time since I’d even glanced at that sign – a grow-the-baby-to-the-cusp-of-his-twenties length of time, and stopping there again that Saturday morning for a bag of ice made those memories misty and my nostalgia shivery. It wasn’t the time or place to reminisce, though; I had a date with a salmon.
This email, from Fisherman Frank of the Gayle R, came late one Friday, 4 or 5 days after the opening of commercial salmon season:
Dear Salmon Fans,
Plenty of fish, but the early bird always gets the worm! (No earlier than 10 o’clock though, please). The cost is $10/lb for the whole fish. Frank will filet and/or steak the fish for you. Please remember to bring an ice chest. Cash is preferred, but local checks are OK. If you don’t think you want a whole fish (average is 11-12 lbs), find a friend to split one with you. Can’t beat the price!! Thanks ~ see you at E-dock!
I was a newbie on his list, the one he sends when he’s on his way back to the harbor with a fresh load of live Dungeness crab, so didn’t realize his repertoire included salmon. Who could resist the lure of the freshest, local-est, line caught fish around? Not me. I was there by 10am after a stop at the bank, the sporting goods store for a new ice chest, and that bag of ice, dragging Kid Two and his Buddy in my wake because I had absolutely NO idea what how one should go about choosing, cutting, or cooking whole fish and figured that it was a good chance for the boys to learn with me. I needn’t have worried. There’s more than a bit of a show and process involved in these fishy transactions, with Frank entertaining each of his customers with his knife skills and patter, certainly holding some sort of dockside customer service award for boat-side fish shopping.
When it’s your turn in line, Frank goes below the dock into a refrigerated hold and chooses your fish, holds it up for your approval, and weighs it.
True to his word, he expertly cuts it to your specifications, whether that is steaks or filets. He will make suggestions if you have no idea. And don’t worry, no one wants to take a fish home whole.
If you’re interested, Frank is proud to demonstrate one way to tell if your salmon is truly fresh: that membrane over the ribs should be firmly attached and more translucent than opaque.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it turns out the people who line up on a dock on a Saturday morning to buy a whole fish are a happy, relaxed, interesting bunch. I met a young mother who raises chickens along with her children who was collecting unwanted fish heads to fertilize her tomato plants and a retired couple who had just returned from a trip to Prague and who were using the occasion to host an impromptu wine and travel party that evening. Chefs and home cooks, friends and cousins. All kindred spirits, people with an obvious zest for living.
After we bought that first fish, we stowed the cooler in the car and took the puppy for his first walk around the harbor.
All in the blink of an eye; I realize this was our third year to go and get one of Fisherman Frank’s First Fish of the Salmon Season. We’ve established a tradition without even realizing it. The best kind, really – a tradition that blends family, friends, and food – a ritual that mixes respect for the outdoors and fresh, local food with togetherness. Our Life in a Skillet evolves every day.