Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:00 PM on Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Memories of salmon dinners past nourish soul in present

Off the Beat


McKibben Jackinsky

Have you seen the television commercial that begins with a voice saying somewhere a good lasagna is being put in the freezer? All the while, ingredients for the commercial's meal of preference, tacos, are being combined.

Put my family in that commercial and it could be any food, including tacos, disappearing into the freezer while viewers watch a salmon get reeled in, cleaned, cooked and put on the table.

When I was growing up, my family's life revolved around salmon. We'd move to the fish camp in the spring and lived in a little plywood cabin on the shores of Cook Inlet. An almost constant wind rattled the plastic windows and the waves were our lullabies. We slept in sleeping bags that, as the summer progressed, became more and more filled with sand. The cabin sat up on pilings, its back to the bluff, its face to the water.

We fished a trap up until traps were outlawed, Dad drift fished on the inlet and Mom and us kids fished setnets from the beach.

In the fall, everything would be stored away or hauled back to our house for the winter. Settling up with the cannery included a portion of the family's earnings being spent in the cannery's commissary. We'd haul home cases of canned food that filled the shelves in the basement that — along with fish we'd smoked and canned, clams we dug, moose Mom and Dad managed to hunt, and vegetables harvested from the garden — kept us fed through the winter.

Early in the spring, preparations for fishing would begin, with nets to be mended and repairs made to boats and engines. A pile driver from the cannery would work its way down the inlet, setting new pilings for that season's traps. Buoys had to be painted.

There were some great salmon dinners at fish camp. Mom or Dad would wrap the fish in foil, along with onions and any bacon we might have, and bury it in the coals of a driftwood fire on the beach. My memories of those occasions are filled with the sounds of gulls and surf, the heat of the day disappearing as the sun slipped behind the mountains, the feel of cold sand beneath my bare feet and the smell that never failed to make me drool when the foil was opened and the fish finally served.

I have one equally vivid, though not so fond memory of one instance when Mom and I joined Dad out on the inlet for a fishing period. At the end of hours of fishing, Mom made a pot of rice and cooked one of the salmon we'd caught for our dinner. The inlet's rolling swells that evening made for a less-than-pleasurable experience.

In other places, cooks perfect their piecrusts with fillings of apples or cherries and pumpkin, but in Ninilchik our piecrusts held salmon. With its layers of fish, rice and onions, pirok was a treat if it was steaming hot from the oven or leftover and eaten cold for lunch the next day.

My dad's version of fish head chowder was the family yardstick for whether or not you were a "real" Jackinsky. It wasn't the taste that got to me. It was the sight of eyeballs floating in the soup pot, the way Dad would pick every last morsel of meat from the jawbone and the way he'd pull salmon teeth out of his mouth. Put Dad and his brother at the same table with a pot of chowder in the middle and, well, it took a strong stomach not to go running from the room. It wasn't until I was an adult and had endured more fish head chowder dinners than I care to remember, that I realized I didn't have to be tortured that way any more.

A song I grew up with is one that claims a love for humpback salmon. As a child, I thought it was unique to our village and was shocked to discover that the line I knew as "I love humpback salmon, good old humpback salmon caught by Ninilchik fishermen" was sung with the name of villages from across Alaska.

In Ninilchik, it is a tradition among the village's original families for the first king salmon caught in the spring to be cut up and delivered to the elders. It is a most valued gift and sign of honor. To this day, at the age of 95, my dad's favorite meal — in the spring or any day of the year — is salmon. Fried. Grilled. Canned. In sandwiches. Smoked. Baked in a pie. Made into soup. Dad doesn't cook anymore, so preparing his meals falls to others.

My husband, Sandy, makes him excellent grilled salmon dinners. I occasionally put together salmon sandwiches. None of us mentions fish head chowder.

Last week, Dad and I were headed to an appointment when we met Steve, the son of one of Dad's childhood buddies. Having grown up here, Steve knows all about the importance of salmon, and he offered Dad one of the fish he'd caught earlier that day.

Dad and I had it for dinner that night. A simple meal of salmon and boiled potatoes. Just the two of us. And a lifetime of memories.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.