• Posted by Susan Suntree on May 26th, 2008, 12:35 PM

    Kimm Brown’s hot smoked wild salmon is the best you’ll ever eat. But unless you’re willing to travel to remote Neah Bay, Washington, you’ll never taste it.  Worse, soon you may not be able to eat wild salmon at all.

    Brown’s salmon, warm and fresh from the smoker, is so delicious that if more foodies knew about it, they’d line up like pilgrims at his smoke shack. Visiting Brown takes planning. A member of the Makah tribe, he lives on the reservation in Neah Bay, in the northwest of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The town is only a few miles from Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the contiguous states where the Strait of Juan de Fuca separates the peninsula from Vancouver Island.

    In August 2007, when my partner Buzz and I visited Brown, the days were bright but the sunshine never separated the fog and clouds that flow into Neah Bay from the gray-blue Pacific. We drove the two-lane route from Port Townsend, where we’d spent a few days, traveling as slowly as possible enjoying spectacular vistas opening between curtains of trees. Arriving in Neah Bay, we took the only room available in town—there are only two motels and both cater to fishermen. The room was clean but spare and looked like a converted shipping container with high water stains all around the exterior, suggesting an eventful life. Our porch overlooked a pile of spare parts. After stowing our bags, we walked across the highway to the Warmhouse, Neah Bay’s only restaurant, which features a pleasing modern design and a scant menu.

    The Warmhouse has a panoramic view of Neah Bay with its docks, fishing boats, beach, and little town framed by forested ridges that stretch to Cape Flattery. Near the docks, a flock of bald eagles swooped and hopped, tussling over offal dumped by the fishermen.  Soon the sunset’s dense watery colors infused the sky and we found ourselves watching a harbor vista without commercial neon or any other familiar signage, leaving us with our thoughts of life lived between forest and Pacific.

    Of course, I planned to eat fish for supper. Neah Bay is well known as a fishing outpost. I imagined the sweet tender freshness of fish caught from the waters right outside the window. But when I asked our young waitress about the origins of the fish on the menu, she said she didn’t know, maybe China. It came to the restaurant frozen in bags. When she saw my surprise, she said she didn’t know why the tribe, who owns the restaurant, couldn’t serve its own fish. She said she’d ask her boyfriend, who was also the cook. Disappointed by what sounded like another case of bungling bureaucracy, I ordered grilled chicken.

    The other people eating at the restaurant were mostly middle-aged white men, a few accompanied by women, who, the waitress told us, were here to fish. This only made me more disappointed that I was denied the fresh local fare. When our waitress brought our bill, she suggested that if we were interested in eating local fish, we ought to visit her father. She told us proudly that he made the very best smoked salmon. In fact, she said, he was famous.

    The next day, after visiting the Makah tribe’s impressive museum and visitor center, we found Kimm Brown’s smoke shack. The first sign we saw warned: “If you park here, your car will be stripped and sold on Ebay.” The arrows on another sign pointed to parking in five different directions. A shaggy black dog lolled in an expanse of grass. Hoping we’d parked in the right place, we walked into the small metal building redolent with salmon and smoke. Brown, in T-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap, greeted us from behind the counter with his smiles-and-bristles humor. The only object of note on the counter was a large, empty stainless steel bowl.

    The slanting light from the shack’s few windows filtered into the interior where the smoker stood in a far corner. On a bench under one of the windows, a half-carved wooden mask lay among a collection of carving tools. His brother, Joe, started it, said Brown. “He’s got a job as a janitor now, so he stopped carving.” Shadowy and straightforward, the shack has not one sign of tourist-trap anachronisms, yet it conjures an unmistakable feeling of stepping back in time.

    While we waited for the next batch of salmon, we asked about the steel drum that Brown adapted as a smoker. “Oh that,” he said, still checking us out, “it’s like the ones they use at the nuclear waste plant.” With a laugh, he pointed to the newspaper clippings taped to the wall.  One of them was a New York Times article by Sam Sifton, the paper’s culture editor, about his and his wife’s travels in the Pacific Northwest in search of the best salmon. He concludes that, of all they’d eaten, from Seattle to Vancouver and back, Brown’s was “by far, the best salmon of the trip.”

    “Fuck yeah,” said Brown. “A month after that article came out, there were three New York chefs here trying to find out what I’m doing that impressed Sam so much.” Brown said he knew they wanted to learn his secret, go home, and copy what he does. “One guy was here for an hour and half asking questions. And when he didn’t get what he wanted, he put his hand on his hip and started looking for things I was doing wrong, like asking me where’s my fire extinguisher. I pointed to the fucking garden hose.”

    Of course, Brown has a secret. He asked the three chefs: “You got any green alder in Central Park?” But that isn’t really the secret, nor is his use of Lawry’s Garlic Salt with Parsley, handed down, he quips, from the forefathers. His secret is this: “I’m in control of the fire; it’s not in control of me.”

    Brown grew up in Neah Bay. When he was four, his dad left the family. They were so poor that he and his mother collected fish heads and backbones from the cannery, where a few relatives worked, to make fish soup. This is how they survived. Once, when he told this story at a family party, a relative scoffed and said he’d have gotten really tired of fish soup. Brown responded, “And you’d have died at very young age.” These days, elders come to him when they don’t feel good; he gives them fish to eat, and they feel better. “It’s good medicine. But nobody asks the Indians,” he added.

    Twenty-eight years ago, when Brown wanted to learn to smoke fish, he didn’t have an elder in his family to teach him. “I’d visit an elder in the community as she worked in her smokehouse. I’d just watch.” The first time he made a smokehouse, he spent the whole day cutting fish and getting it set up. When he checked on the fish, he found all the salmon slumped on the ground. That’s when he realized there was still a lot to learn about smoking fish: the correct thickness of the pieces, the quality and storage of the fish, the air tightness of the smoker, the age of the alder which, he learned, has to be used within three days of being cut. “Alder grows like grass around Neah Bay,” says Brown. Of all the lessons he learned in his trial-and-error apprenticeship, the most important one was how to run the fire. “That’s the whole secret. And that can’t be taught.” Eight years later he opened his business, the Take Home Fish Company, though he’s never hung up a sign.

    Once, he tells us, a longtime customer came in with his tall blond wife (“a woman with all the parts,” added Brown with a wink) to talk about his failure following Brown’s lessons in salmon smoking. Turns out he’d aged the alder for a month, among other things. “That wood belonged in his fucking fireplace, not near the fish,” said Brown. Also, “the fish will turn soft if its isn’t cared for just right after it’s caught.” And, “People who scrape the scales off fish before they smoke it, they’re letting the oils out. They’ll have a dry piece of fish. Leave the skin alone! When it’s smoked you can eat the skin; my little nine-year-old daughter loves it.”

    While he’s talking, Brown checks the smoker. Returning for the steel bowl, he moves back to the shadowy corner, and returns with the bowl filled with pieces of dark reddish brown smoked salmon. We buy two pieces and eat them. The most succulent, savory, moist, sweet-salty tastes unfurl in my mouth. The sea, the alder, the seasoning, the culture, and Brown’s artistry blend in the taste of the salmon. I won’t say I swooned, but that is one of the most memorable eating moments I have ever had.

    When I phoned Brown to talk with him about this article, he asked me if I remembered the little pizza place across the street from his smoke shack. I did, because it advertised coffee and I remember needing some. “I bought it, ” he said, “and I got rid of the microwaved hamburgers.” He continued, “My daughter’s in charge, the oldest, and she knows how to make my coffee, so that’s going to be good enough. I’ve turned it into a café. We sell Indian tacos, clam fritters, wraps. I put in a propane grill.”
    I asked him if that meant he wouldn’t be crewing anymore on a friend’s boat, as he told me he’d done since 1990. No, he still goes out fish; he went out this year. The reason he bought the café is because salmon fishing won’t be around much longer. “It’s a dying industry,” he said.

    This was not the direction I thought our conversation would take when I phoned him.

    “We have five Makah-owned whiting boats here,” he went on. “They kill fish by the thousands.” These boats are trawlers that fish for whiting, an important forage fish often called hake. Along the Pacific coast, hake (along with the other forage fish: sardines, menhaden, herring, Pollock, squid, and krill), is one of the most important prey for large predator fish like tuna and salmon, as well as fish-eating seabirds and mammals. Because they are used in the manufacture of a surimi (a popular crab substitute), fishmeal, fish oil, and food for fish farms, the forage fish, in 2005, accounted for 36 percent of the world’s catch. In 2005, the West coast hake fishery reached a record large catch. Scientists began warning about the fishery’s collapse because of the high percentage of immature fish being netted. They also warned about the effect of the declining hake fishery on sea lions, whose main food is hake. No wonder Brown threw in a few expletives about sea lions during our conversation: they now have to eat other fish, including more salmon, now that the hake are in shorter supply.

    “You get five of these whiting boats going through an area and you’re going to kill salmon, kill everything,“ Brown said. He explained that the boats drop and drag nets that opens as wide as a football field, sweeping up not just hake but everything in their path, including salmon maturing in the ocean and those returning to rivers to spawn. When a net is full, before they attach it to a line and pull it over to the factory ship, the trawler’s crew dumps out what’s called bycatch: all of the fish besides hake. This, of course, is illegal. “We’ve heard skippers talking and they say they pull fourteen to sixteen thousand pounds of salmon in a single tow. They say they kick them overboard, but they don’t survive.” Brown added, “The owners say they’ll get those escapement things on there, but they don’t work.” Brown is referring to additions to the nets that are supposed to allow the bycatch to escape. The only federal observer, said Brown, is a camera on the factory ship.  Reports to the Pacific Fishery Management Council support his contention; in fact, it appears that the cameras often turned off or disabled.

    The Makah fleet has forty boats. Brown said that a white-owned company sponsored five Makah whiting fisherman by giving them a line of credit, which they have since paid off. According to Brown, these five boat owners pay the tribal council around $60,000 a year per boat, which covers the mooring costs for all the boats in the tribe’s fleet. Brown continued: “About ten, twelve years they’ve been here. They’ve damaged two cycles of salmon.” Each salmon goes to sea and, in four or five years, returns to the river where it was hatched to spawn the next generation. He added, “there are white guys out there fishing, too, besides the five Indian boats.” Now he sees the government shutting fisheries all along the Pacific coast and he predicts this will soon happen all the way to Alaska.

    “There’s a growing hatred in the community toward these five owners,” said Brown. “Our community needs to grab the Tribal Council by the throat because the people are choking.” He said that this summer there will be a meeting with the Council about this problem, and he predicted a large turnout.

    Diminishing salmon runs have increased what Brown pays for the fish he smokes. The price has already doubled. This means he has to start charging Seattle prices in Neah Bay. “I can’t do that,” he said. “That’s going to be impossible.” So, he said, reminding me that he’s a single dad with a family to support, “I bought another business.”

    For centuries, salmon have not only provided food for the Makah, they have been the basis of a way of life. But the ocean’s immense, unraveling web—swaths without oxygen, areas the size of Texas filled with trash brought by the ocean’s currents, massive over-fishing—is revealing its effects in Brown’s humble shack, in each piece of gloriously smoked salmon.

    If you want to visit Brown, he suggests phoning him before you make the trip. To contact Kimm Brown, write to him at Take Home Fish Company, P. O. Box 40, Neah Bay, Washington 98357 or phone him at 360-645-2334 (home) or 360-640-0262 (cell).

    Susan Suntree is a poet, writer, and performer whose relish for juicy connections between food and culture have led her to obscure corners of her homeland, Southern California, as well as territories farther afield.

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