Onagh MacKenzie ‘15 writes about her summer in Sitka:
By the grace of the universe, luck, and a generous fellowship, I managed to find my way back to Sitka, Alaska this summer. I happened upon this special island community in Southeast Alaska through a food-related internship last summer and promptly fell in love with its spirit, culture, and mountains that kiss the sea. Needless to say, I’ve been ready to return ever since my plane’s wheels took off last season.
I had been back in Sitka for a week when I got the call. It was a friend’s father, Floyd, on the other end of the line. Floyd was a longtime fisherman, handyman, and an expert in random but countless fields, as all Sitkans seem to be. He invited me out to fish; an opportunity for ocean travel, general fun, and a potential stocking of the freezer. I immediately accepted.
All suited up in my mustang suit, an unsinkable, orange, full body flotation device, and I was ready to hop in the skiff. We headed out to Biorca, an island about forty-five minutes on relatively calm water from Sitka. It was Salmon Derby weekend in town, and the flashy sport fishing boats watched our well-worn skiff amble by enviously. It was the crack of dawn and we had time and the tide on our side. The competing boats couldn’t head out from the harbor until 7 am.
Outboard engine slowed and the waves making their presence known, we began the ritual baiting of the hook. Watching a seasoned fisherman complete this initial task, one instantly becomes aware that fishing is steeped in tradition. Floyd prefers to use herring as bait, meticulously cutting the small dart of silver on the underside, down the belly to the tail. His confident hands hook one hook in the fish’s flesh, leaving the second to snag the too-curious salmon. A needle is then pierced through the fish, dragging the line through the eye. The eyeballs are kept in their socket at all costs, maintaining every possible shred of herring authenticity. The line then wraps around the chin, precisely twice. Floyd’s signature flair comes when he curls the herring, right at the neck and inserts a toothpick to keep the neck turned, giving the fish a realistic spin when trailing in the water. When I ask about this method, Floyd admits that he doesn’t know where he learned this and isn’t sure that it works better than any others, but it’s Floyd’s flourish and he’ll practice it as long as he fishes.
Almost immediately after we cast and start to troll, moving forward very slowly in the skiff, we sense a tug on the line. When Floyd places the pole in my greenhorn hands, I am immediately flustered, worried I don’t have enough arm strength to hoist what I could swear is a record-breaking King salmon on the other end. Floyd is completely unruffled however and clearly amused by my stress. After a few seconds of my unaided floundering, he steps in with seasoned wisdom: hold my pole up and don’t fight the salmon. Let the fish run. A tired King salmon is what we want in our boat.
And a tired King it is. Two in fact by the time we decide to head in, only one short of the three salmon allowed for a subsistence salmon permit in this opening. We stop at a floating cleaning station on our way into the harbor. As we de-head and gut our Kings, Floyd shares more local knowledge. Kings, I learn, have a different shape, tail form, patterns, and purple coloring on the scales, from any of the other four pacific salmon species, Pink, Coho, Chum, or Sockeye. We let our cleaning scraps slide into the ocean, an easy snack for some lucky sea lions.
We pull up to my host family’s driveway and Floyd breaks the news. He already has enough salmon in his fridge and he doesn’t eat frozen salmon. The logical conclusion: I am begged to take home two freshly caught, twenty-pound King salmon.
My host-parents, not fishermen themselves, are clearly overjoyed. Hours later, covered in vibrant orange flesh and surprisingly sticky scales, Peter, my host-dad, and I have learned to fillet a salmon. Definitely not the best fillet job an Alaskan salmon has seen, but it will have to pass. Cleaning our hands up a bit, we can’t help ourselves. We head to the computer and look up Alaskan King salmon fillet prices in an upscale Seattle market. By our rough metrics, we have over $400 of pink protein in our fridge.
After we bury the skeletons in the garden for added nutrients, we break out the phone book, calling up every non-fishing family friend we can think of. Unsurprisingly we’re met with overjoyed responses. Peter and I load up the car and begin the salmon drop-off. Laden with hugs, recipe suggestions, and a dozen fresh eggs from a recipient’s flock, we return home to our own bounty, excited for a week of salmon-centric dining and completing what we fondly coin to be our “circle of salmon happiness.”
Most of my friends spent their spring break flying south, migrating to white beaches or service trips in the outskirts of jungles. I spent my spring break being pulled north by the smokey, sweet lure of my family’s sugaring operation.
Late winter, early spring at my home in Western New York is a time of tradition. I know that tradition is an overused word, but it really is the only one that remotely describes what pushes my dad to spend his summers sweatily cutting down tress for sugaring fuel, and his winters freezing his fingers while untangling sculptures of knotted tubing. Tradition is what brings my family together around the evaporator for a night filled with Bob Dylan crooning from the scratchy radio and savory sugar-house specials: a steaming shot of almost-done syrup and dark Haitian rum.
In my dad’s younger days of three braids and hitchhiking, he picked up a long church pew in his travels. I doubt he knew where it would fit into his life then, but it has its place now. It stretches along the back wall of the sugar house, engraved into perfect seat cradles by the many neighbors, family members, dogs, and strangers who have found the warmth of conversation and syrup upon it.
Syrup is the embodiment of the power to connect. It quite literally connects itself. Syrup has boiled to completion when its stickiness is strong enough to hold it in a connected curtain across the edge of a special metal scoop. It connects recipes. Add a dash of syrup and I swear that everything in your recipe will come together perfectly. It connects generations. Your grandma might not recognize high fructose corn syrup, but I bet she understands the sweetness of maple syrup! Syrup brings together people, and ideologies, and animals. Sugar houses provide a space to take the time. To sit down next to someone with no agenda in mind and connect. Maybe to talk, but maybe to just sit in steam and sip.
Favorite and Simple MacKenzie Family Maple Syrup Recipes:
*The Favorite, Tried and True Spoon (or as my dad calls it: his medicine): All you need is maple syrup and a table spoon (or even a tea spoon.) Fill the spoon with syrup and drink. Feel free to refill as many times as you desire.
*Maple Grapefruit: If you like a bit of sweetness with your grapefruit, ditch the sugar and pour on the syrup. I guarantee you’ll never go back!
*Sap Coffee: Make coffee like you normally do but replace the water with sap. It adds subtle, but wonderful flavor and you won’t even need to add any extra sugar!
*The Sugar House Special: A shot with half warm syrup and half dark rum. Sip so you don’t burn yourself!
-Onagh MacKenzie ‘15
Pizza and Events intern Onagh MacKenzie ‘15, who grew up on a sprawling rural livestock farm, on how she learned to appreciate the bite-sized Yale version:
Farming, to me, has always meant land. Lots of it. It has meant being able to turn 360 degrees and not see a man-made structure. Or hear anything other than the cows and their cud.
When my parents moved to Naples, New York over thirty years ago, they bought half an old dairy farm, the worn-in house, and its fifty acres. My brother has since used the entire farm, our fields and woods, along with the other original half, to establish his own sustainable meat farm. No more of my dad’s disorganized, motley crew of Scottish Highland cows. We have a “real” farm operation now, with ear tags and rotating pastures and three strands of fencing instead of one. (Sometimes I find myself missing the weekly call from the neighbors telling us our cows were in the road, or, sometimes, their garden.)
The main constraint on my brother’s operation hasn’t been lack of manpower or customers, but land. The 100 acres have long ceased to be enough. The cows and sheep now spill over onto neighboring land which we lease from its owners. To compensate for the distance in grass, we need to have sheep road moves between pastures. “Sheep in the Road” signs go up on either end of the journey, and in the middle it’s a sea of wooly bodies, swarming around the cars and invading the ditches. We’re reminded just how much we could use those extra acres of our own.
The idea that a farm could exist without acres of fields and with sidewalks, passing traffic, and a city skyline in the distance was a foreign concept to me. Urban farming seemed too much of an incongruity. Then I found my way to the Yale Farm. Instead of road sheep moves, we have perfectly aligned greenhouses and beds of veggies measured to take advantage of every last patch of earth. At 345 Edwards Street, lack of land is an inspiration: rather than focusing on what we don’t have, the small space encourages innovation.
But it’s more than just a space to be utilized: the Farm is a space to enjoy, a space to appreciate farming for more than just its fields and its time in nature. At the Yale Farm I have learned to love sustainable agriculture for its desire to spread good food and to appreciate where it comes from. The Farm is a space for the people, and the parts of friends that only come out when picking carrots. Space for the pause in my life that Friday afternoons provide, a time to breathe after the sprint of the week. And you know what? When I’m bent over in the garden bed, proudly checking out the dirt under my fingernails, or with my head stuck in the pizza oven, monitoring the cooking dough, I don’t even notice the skyline.