Sisters Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton grew up on a homestead in Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands, learning to live off the wild bounty of their surroundings. They spent summers on their family’s commercial fishing boat, working and living at sea for weeks at a time. Now, they’re co-founders of Salmon Sisters, a wild Alaskan fish and clothing company, and have written a cookbook, “The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska.” It’s full of vivid, transportive storytelling and lessons from their unique way of life—including a wealth of seafood cooking expertise and recipes. In this excerpt, they share some of the rhythms, challenges, and joys of cooking at sea.
Our parents started their careers as fishermen in their early 20s, both transplants from the Lower 48. Papa got a job on a fishing boat sailing north from Seattle, and Mom answered an ad in a local newspaper for a job at a lodge in Glacier Bay National Park. After a few seasons in southeast Alaska, they moved west to the Aleutian Islands, where fishing opportunity was vast, and a small homestead on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula became their home.
They learned to setnet for salmon in Ikatan Bay, an abandoned cannery village near False Pass and just a few miles away from our homestead by skiff. They seined for herring in the spring near Togiak fishery and longlined for halibut near Dutch Harbor and King Cove in the fall. Eventually, they bought a 42-foot gillnet boat named the FV Lucky Dove, which became our family’s boat and seasonal home for most of our childhood.
Papa spent his summers fishing around Unimak Island while Mom ran the homestead—fending off hungry brown bears and looking after the garden, chickens, and the two of us until we were old enough to join our dad on the water. On the boat, we helped Papa pick salmon from the gill net, lift levers that ran the hydraulics, and spot jumping fish from the flying bridge. We brought stacks of books borrowed from the small village library to read at the galley table and studied the names of salmon species, seabirds, neighboring volcanoes, and the boats in our fleet.
We wrote letters to our friends who spent their summers fishing too, many of them with their families in other remote parts of the state. It might take a month for mail to pass between us, so sometimes, we just slipped our messages into empty bottles and threw them to the waves, hoping the sea might deliver them more quickly than boats or planes would.
At the Galley Table
But our first real job, before we were big or strong enough to run the back deck or clean halibut, was to cook.
We learned how to grind coffee beans and to always keep the coffee pot full. We made bread and muffins and cookies in the finicky propane oven on the Lucky Dove, and prepared the fresh fish we caught in our net. We took turns cooking bacon and eggs and blueberry pancakes on the stovetop in the mornings.
It was nice to stay inside where it was warm, but when the seas were rough, we both preferred to be out in the fresh air instead of in the galley. Bad weather taught us tricks for holding pots of boiling water in place, keeping bowls of soup upright, and bungee-cording the coffee pot to the wall. Being seasick is one of the worst feelings, but coming inside after a long day of work to a good meal is one of the best, so we always tried to look out at the horizon while we cooked and endure the queasiness for as long as it took to make one for the crew.
Our dad, perhaps because he has grown used to the delicious meals flowing from our mom’s kitchen, considers good food to be one of the most important parts of life. He has always given mealtimes at sea a special importance. While scouting for jumping salmon through his binoculars or jotting notes into his logbook or answering calls on the radio, he would call out to whoever might hear: “What about some beer-battered halibut?” or “I was thinking about cookies.”
After exchanging a sideways sisterly look, we got to work.
Every time we left the homestead, we geared up with bundles of fresh greens and radishes and cherry tomatoes and carrots and potatoes from the garden. After a few weeks at sea, our vegetable supply ran low, and we resorted to a regular diet of fresh salmon with rice, seaweed, sesame seeds, and soy sauce—a staple meal for our family that somehow we’ve never grown tired of. Catching fish so fresh and sharing it around a tiny galley table after a long day of work might have something to do with it.
On days when fishing was closed and we were far from home, we anchored somewhere protected from the wind and waves with other fishermen in our fleet, our boats rafted together for the night. Captains and crew crowded into one boat’s cabin, telling stories until the midnight sun slept, weaving comedy and tragedy into their memories. Young deckhands listened intently, witness to both the exuberance and melancholy of their captains’ experiences at sea, and learning to spin tales of their own. We often made meals together on these nights, tossing tortillas across the deck, peeling potato skins into the sea, and swapping hot sauces and pots and pans in a dance between our rafted boats.
Cooking is a pastime and a way to express ourselves creatively during a fishing season without phone service or the internet or news aside from the constant chatter on the radio. With limited ingredients and without the ability to quickly Google a recipe, it’s sometimes hard to envision a meal. But when we let ourselves enjoy the challenge of using ingredients in a non-typical way, wonderful things can happen.
Serving up a delicious dish on the boat means we can raise spirits when the weather is bad or fishing is slow. Fishing days are long and intense, and we are often working 20 hours straight, with only a few hours to sleep. A pan of brownies or a pot of halibut chowder might make the difference between a forgettable day and a memorable one.
It’s difficult to get fresh vegetables on the boat, especially when we’re at sea for weeks at a time, but healthy meals are still possible. Some summers, we bring plants on the boat and they grow happily in the window or on the top deck. Potatoes, onions, cabbage, garlic, and ginger keep well for a long time in a cool, dry place on the boat, and more perishable vegetables can be preserved by canning or pickling to be enjoyed for many months.
Plus, there is nothing more nutritious than fish fresh from the ocean. We enjoy eating as many parts of the fish as we can all summer long—fried salmon skin makes for a delicious crunchy snack, and cod tongues taste like scallops when cooked in butter. Fish bones and tails make good stock for soups, and salted salmon roe is a delicacy on rice or crackers.
Something we love about living and eating on the boat is the joy that comes from a juicy orange, a decadent chocolate bar, or a bowl of ice cream from a tender’s freezer. One time, we gave a bunch of cilantro to another crew who hadn’t been to town in over a month, and one of them cried actual tears of joy.
These moments that can be taken for granted when we’re on land are absolutely savored at sea—the simple pleasure of eating good food.
Copyright 2020 by Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton. Excerpted from “The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska” by permission of Sasquatch Books.