Sitka is home to many things: the majestic spruce trees of Tongass National Forest, ancient and storied totem poles, a vibrant coastal community and really good pie.
It's also home to the Sitka Seafood Festival, a three-day celebration of wild Alaska seafood and the people and places it sustains, held July 31-Aug. 2. This year, I was lucky enough to join the festivities (bobbing for fish heads, anyone?) and to learn the story behind it.
In the historic former Sheldon Jackson College campus kitchen, I met seven chefs from across the country. Their mission was to cook a five-course local seafood dinner that evening for 200 hungry diners. Outside, the sun blazed, sparkling on the nearby ripe huckleberry bushes. Less than a mile away, thousands of pink salmon splashed and danced as they returned to Indian River to spawn.
Chef Caleb France of Indianapolis was the Sitka Seafood Festival's guest chef this year. His restaurant Cerulean is known for making Indiana-grown and sourced ingredients the star of its dishes. In the Midwest, this means mainly local pork, beef, duck, bison, lamb and local produce. So how did he get to be the guest chef at an Alaska seafood celebration.?
This is France's first visit to Alaska, but he's had a connection to the state for years. Through a community-supported fishery business called Sitka Salmon Shares, France has purchased wild Alaska seafood for his restaurant directly from Sitka fishermen since 2001. So along with heartland filets, pork chops and lamb sweetbreads, he is able to offer Sitka black cod and wild salmon on the menu.
France and his family spent the week meeting the fishermen of Sitka Salmon Shares and getting to know the lands and waters that he has grown to love from afar. "I want to create an emotional connection to food through my dishes," he said.
I head to the docks with Nic Mink, co-founder of Sitka Salmon Shares. We meet Marsh Skeele of the F/V Loon, who's from Sitka and is one of the nine fishermen who catch fish for program. For Skeele, fishing is more than just a livelihood. He needs to know that he's not just a cog in a machine, with faceless customers who don't know coho from cod.
Knowing his consumers is important to Skeele, and he wants them to be proud of his work. He demonstrates how troll fishermen fish by catching salmon on hooks, using bright lures trailed from lines behind slow-moving boats. Each fish is pulled aboard individually, carefully cleaned and packed immediately in layers of ice, with little or no bycatch. Although it's a time- and labor-intensive handling process, both Mink and Skeele believe it results in a much higher quality of fish and has less impact on habitat.
Many of Alaska's fishing boats are still family-run operations, with traditions and knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. Skeele learned the trade from his father and will one day teach it to his own children.
Many of Alaska's rural coastal communities are dependent on healthy fisheries. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the seafood industry is the largest private employer in Sitka and the state.
The nonprofit Sitka Seafood Festival was co-founded five years ago by physical therapist Alicia Olson. "Our goal was to create a way for locals to celebrate our number-one industry and educate the rest of the world about our seafood." The idea is to make a serious issue fun. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," said Olson, who still serves on the board.
Her mother, Linda Olson, is the secretary at the local elementary school. For her, the festival is truly a labor of love. She organizes the annual parade through town. This year, an octopus' garden and yellow submarine were followed by a colorful procession of fishermen, sharks and sea creatures.
Olson believes that Sitka could one day be recognized as the culinary capital of Alaska, and the festival's banquet is making strides when it comes to putting Sitka on the map as an international food destination. Along with expected seafood dishes, the dishes featured herring eggs, salmon skin chicharrones and wild foods of the region, like sea asparagus, foraged mushrooms, spruce tips and berries. There was also Alaska pancetta and barley grown in Delta Junction.
Sitka chef Jeren Schmidt played the necessary role of coordinating the ingredient sourcing for the banquet. "Each course had multiple connections to different people in the community," she said.
During the banquet dinner, the crowd cheered when Skeele's coho salmon was served. A proud former coworker whispered loudly at our table that she knew him. Even from the back of the room, you could see Skeele's embarrassed grin. "It was all France," he said, crediting the chef.
At the end of the day, fishing is a lot of hard work. But for Skeele, "it's moments like this that make it all worth it."
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.