Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Wonders (and Perils) of Copper River King Salmon

Touched down in the great state of Washington, after a tumultous series of farewells and last minute anxiety attacks over my impending departure. Gazing out the plane window as we begin our descent, I spot snowy mountainpeaks and miles of lush evergreens. Seeing plant life as tall as Manhattan skyscrapers makes me all the more aware (and grateful) to be leaving New York in my rearview for the next 30 days.

I'm greeted at the airport by Jordan, a friend and my mother's former student teacher. He departed my hometown of Boston a year ago to join his boyfriend in Seattle, and pointed out Mt. Rainier as we headed into the city proper. While I don't have much time for a proper Seattle tour tonight, he wants to show me a little bit of what makes the city special, so we head into Capitol Hill for dinner. Every block of this neighborhood is packed with curated bookstores and record stores, every corner holds a pub with tattooed and bedenimed denizens pouring out onto the sidewalk, and every restaurant promises both a industrial design interior and a spectacular, reasonably-priced menu. It's like somehow the town of Northampton, MA took over my favorite neighborhoods in NYC, and I immediately bookmark the neighborhood as a future hangout spot. I also make a mental note to get a tattoo. And a bandana.

We find ourselves at Oddfellows, a restaurant in the trendy neighborhood that also seems to be featuring a very special dish.

"Oooh, Copper River salmon," Jordan says.

"What is it?"

"It's a special variety of salmon that's only available for 2, maybe 3 weeks of the year. It's nearly impossible to get, only when they're swimming upstream to spawn. Definitely worth getting."

I can't argue with seasonality, especially when I later find out that it's only available from May to June, so I'm just catching it at the end of its appearance. (More fun facts: it has a higher fat content than their ocean-dwelling relatives, and it retails at $30.00 per pound... so I got a pretty good deal on my dinner, a nice big filet served with a green apple and arugula slaw.)
 As I'm feasting on my locavore salmon, and Jordan slurps up his intensely rich butternut squash soup with dungeness crab, we watch the dudes behind the open kitchen counter. They are RIPPED--tattooed, shaved heads, muscles like bodybuilders.
 They're slamming saute pans down on big metal burgers, tossing handfuls of salt and butter around like potpourri, and generally being super macho and badass in the kitchen. I'm starting to wonder if I should've spent the last few months curling and working on my biceps--or taking growth hormones to make my hands big enough and tough enough to toss around hot pans without flinching.

But we're also reveling in eating something that isn't super-dressed up--this is a sloppy kitchen, one with real work out in the open, not hidden in the back with tweezers. Good honest food is hard to come by, and like me, Jordan gets fed up with the artifice of fine dining, and of New York in general. We talk about the way different towns have different levels of food fanciness--as he readies for a school trip to New Orleans, I start making a list of all the down-home gumbo spots I discovered on my last trip. As I explain the kind of food I hope to be making, he mentions a few places I should check out in the Seattle area. I'm worried that, like the Copper River salmon, I'm only swimming upstream and reaching my full potential for a few that far too short for anyone to appreciate my flavor? Or is the salmon, like the experience I start tomorrow, the culinary version of the old saying "carpe diem"? Am I meant to seize the fish, and ask questions later?

Curled up on a futon in Jordan's guest room, I start plotting my route to Orcas tomorrow. Going the local way, by shuttle, by ferry, by bike, by dirt road...

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