In ‘A Year Right Here,’ Jess Thomson learns one fishing trip can mean as much as the entire journey.
In “A Year Right Here,” I set out to spend a year exploring the food of the Pacific Northwest with my family.
Planning to revel in the culinary riches of the region and hoping to break our son, Graham, of his childhood pickiness, I channeled my Type-A tendencies into planning a series of adventures I called “The Here List.” Ranging from building a backyard chicken coop to truffle hunting, from razor clamming on the Washington coast to fishing for salmon just beyond it, the list was an extension of the realization that while I spent so much time daydreaming about discovering food in other places — buying cheese in Provence, fishing in Morocco — I was a Seattle food writer who often forgot how much we have to celebrate within a few hours of our Seattle home.
Initially, the goal was to bring my family with me. That meant certain limitations: When the book starts, Graham is 5 years old. He has cerebral palsy and, at the time, didn’t walk independently, so my husband, Jim, and I spent much of our time fretting over how we could motivate him to participate in the endless therapies, procedures and appointments his condition entails. We didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on his food preferences.
About the book
“A Year Right Here” by Jess Thomson.
Copyright © 2017 by Jess Thomson.
This excerpt is published courtesy University of Washington Press.
I thought, at first, that traveling with him might surreptitiously introduce him to new foods. And at first, it was true: As a family, we visited Tieton Farm & Creamery near Yakima, where Graham grasped that the goats make cheese he likes. The chicken coop Jim built begat chickens, which Graham both befriended and started eating.
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But partway through the book, Jim and I decided Graham should undergo a major surgery that essentially changed the structure of his legs. The recovery took far longer than we anticipated. Jim, an oceanographer and University of Washington professor, left on a two-month research trip to the Arctic. Because Graham was still in full healing mode, the way I viewed “The Here List” had to change. For a while, I went nowhere. Ultimately — spoiler alert — I abandoned the list, learning that letting go can be just as important as holding on.
Graham did recover, and eventually I realized that I could begin taking adventures without him — a relearning of the classic parental allowance that the child can survive just fine under the care of others. We organized a salmon-fishing trip the summer of 2015 with friends out of Seattle’s Shilshole Marina.
Below is the chapter titled “The Opposite of Ilwaco,” adapted from the book.
MY FATHER’S FAMILY has a history of fishing out of Ilwaco, Washington, a hiccup of a town near the dangerous sand bar that separates the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, right between Washington and Oregon. The truth is, he grew up fishing everywhere, so his brain is mapped with the rivers of the United States. But only Ilwaco — he referred to fishing there using just the town’s name, often with the same knowing, portentous tone my veteran grandfather reserved for saying “Vietnam” or “Korea” — was a family rite of passage.
The boat ride was rough, but the salmon were unbeatable. My great-grandfather Henry used to say he was going salmon fishing in Ilwaco as a euphemism for gambling and drinking whiskey, and when his wife, Dolly, suggested the family start coming along, there was a permanent palpable tension between the two. But off they went, yearly, or so I had always thought, for the family fishing trip.
As far as I knew, Ilwaco had been what had inspired my father’s lifelong love for trout fishing. I’d assumed, my whole life, that my father fished in rivers because we lived in Boise, Idaho — because fly-fishing for fat rainbow trout a three-hour drive from home with my brother had been much more convenient than driving 10 hours to Ilwaco and chartering a boat and a captain for salmon fishing on the frothy Pacific.
Because, growing up, I’d usually been the one to stay warm and dry with my mom, who harbors a notoriously strong distaste for all creatures finned, I’d missed the mostly father-son adventures on the Idaho streams that provided most of the fish I ate growing up. I was a fish-eater in a family of recreational fishermen, but I’d only been fishing myself a handful of times. And so early in the summer, I had called my father, suggesting our own family fishing trip to Ilwaco for Father’s Day and providing, I thought ingeniously, an out for my mother, who wouldn’t enjoy it if it involved looking at fish: She could stay on shore with Graham. We’d catch fat king salmon during the fish’s fattest weeks of the Pacific Northwest season, in a famously fantastic fishing spot.
“No way,” my dad responded, launching into a tirade about the area’s deadly conditions. “That is just so stupid. Knowing what I know about Ilwaco, it’s ridiculous to even imagine us trying to fish there. In fact, fishing there is my idea of hell.”
My father — who, as his brother, Ken, puts it, “has always had his differences with open water” — scolded me for asking for trouble. As if I’d called to let him know I’d planned to march on Jerusalem with an anti-Semitic graffiti team, or wanted to wander naked with hungry polar bears in the Arctic.
I’d known his earliest fishing trip had been a stomach-jolting combination of too many candy bars for breakfast, the smell of diesel fuel and rolling seas, but I’d thought perhaps having outgrown a Hershey habit had made seasickness a problem of the past. I’d suggested Ilwaco might have changed for him by then.
“You’re wrong. There isn’t an ocean salmon-fishing trip I’ve been on that hasn’t made me sick,” he promised, his voice rising on the other end of the phone, like he was instinctively trying to speak over the sound of a motor. “I’m sorry to be such a Debbie Downer on this particular subject, but I’m speaking from experience. It’s a very bad idea. I do love to eat salmon, but I only fish from the shore.” Then he hung up.
It is perhaps worth noting that I come from a family of social Neanderthals. That might be a slight exaggeration, but my clan typically doesn’t say much that isn’t necessary for everyday function. No one says nice things just to be nice. And more than that, though we are kind folks, we can all of us get a little sharp, if you hit the right buttons. It would have been completely uncharacteristic, for example, for my dad to say that the trip had been a nice idea. Still, I’d flinched, and spent the rest of the afternoon stunned by his coarse dismissal.
My dad’s last comment had stuck with me, though, reminding me that I thought I cared as much or more about eating the fish as I did about catching the fish. It didn’t really matter to me how far from the shore I went for said fish, as long as I came home with them. So in a quick squall of emails that resulted in much less planning and driving than an Ilwaco trip but probably the same amount of money, I arranged spots on a salmon-fishing charter with my husband and our friends Anne and Ben, leaving from a dock less than 3 miles from my home in Seattle. It was advertised as a “classic Pacific Northwest saltwater fishing experience.” If my dad didn’t want to come salmon fishing, I’d just go fishing myself, I figured.
Before dawn one Saturday, Jim and I dragged ourselves out of bed and down to the docks at Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina, the floating parking lot next to Golden Gardens Park that hosts the city’s year-round population of motorboats, sailboats and fishing boats for people who hire other people to help them fish for salmon once a decade. I was the salmon-fishing equivalent of loaded for bear: We donned waterproof gear head to toe, like we’d be heading out for an experience à la “Deadliest Catch,” and brought a cooler of beer for good measure. The other couple on our charter, a building-supply-store owner from Central Washington and his new bride, were star-struck by the city and excited to board the boat. The man chomped down a bag of Reese’s Pieces for breakfast, and I grimaced, wondering whether the forecast rain would come with wind, and whether the wind would come with waves, and whether we’d see those Reese’s Pieces again, like at Ilwaco circa 1960.
Only, our captain — a tight-lipped, weatherworn guy much more focused on doing his job than on getting to know us (or, say, ask our names) — didn’t go very far. In fact, rather than crossing Puget Sound toward the islands just appearing on the horizon in the misty dawn, as Jim and I had done once on a different charter boat years earlier, he cut the engine about 10 minutes from the dock. And without ceremony, he let the boat drift within a very good stone’s throw of the shore and busied himself setting up the fishing rigs we wrongly assumed we’d be learning how to use ourselves.
Ben and Anne and Jim and I exchanged glances.
“This is it?” Anne mouthed.
“I guess so?” I mouthed back, turning my palms to the sky with a shrug. We had anticipated an adventure. We’d imagined waves sloshing over the sides, knuckles whitening with the effort of holding rods and rails tight in bad weather. The captain had given us a brief demonstration on how to reel fish in properly, offering no more detailed information than one might glean from being a human in a world full of fish-eaters for 30-some years. We had to pry for details about what bait he was using, and where he thought the fish might be, and what exactly we should anticipate catching. The answers came in short, almost-militaristic reports: “Herring.” “Here.” “Salmon.” We couldn’t understand why someone so unwilling to talk held a job that theoretically required talking. Thirty minutes in, it became clear we’d paid to hang out on a boat together and watch someone else fish.
We sat in the half-light, not even slightly shivering, comfortably drinking still-hot coffee out of a fancy Japanese thermos, as Captain Quiet bustled around the wet aft deck casting off his piratical glare, only grunting occasionally toward us if one of the four fishing lines wiggled a little. I wondered if the weight of his bushy mustache made it hard for him to open his mouth. For an hour, we caught nothing. I imagined my friends imagining better fishing.
Then, from inside the cozy little cabin, we heard a hiss and a pop, and turned to find my husband had cracked open a Rainier. “This is the best way I know of to catch a fish,” he announced. It was 7:10 in the morning. We all smiled. And, as if on command, the lines started hopping. “FISH ON!” he hollered triumphantly, pointing. And then came another.
For a moment, Mr. Mustache was overwhelmed — with a fish on one line and another flopping on the boat’s deck, a third line wobbled, and he nodded to me, suggesting it was my turn to reel one in. I stepped forward and reeled, surprised by the wonkiness of the rod and the strength of the salmon. As I brought the fish in closer, I felt what must be the rush fishermen refer to when they have a live thing attached to their palms via braided microfilament line; the moment I saw the fish’s fin glint in the soft morning light, I grasped the rod tighter, and spun the line-winding widget faster, blood hot in my arms.
But I was too hasty. Not 10 feet from the boat, the fish disappeared. I had reeled him in too fast.
“Now look what you’ve done!” roared the captain, suddenly articulate and plenty loud. “You’ve ripped the poor guy’s lip out!”
I cowered with mock guilt, thinking he was mostly joking and that perhaps he did have a personality after all, until he leaned over to dangle a large hook with a bloody fish lip attached to it about 6 inches from my forehead. “You did this,” he yelled again. He was right. I’d de-lipped a sockeye salmon.
And because in all our sibling photographs, I was the sockeye — my brother, my sister and I have an uncanny ability to frown deeply, drop our lower jaws and bug our eyes out, to such good fishy effect that we sometimes go by Bassface, Tunaface and Sockeyeface, respectively — it felt a little like ripping out my own lip. It made me never want to catch a fish again. I moved to the soft little bench inside the boat’s cockpit and opened a beer.
And so the morning went: silence and slow lines, followed by the hiss-pop of a beer, then the wiggle of a preset fishing line, and sometimes a catch (once, begrudgingly at first, by me). The captain radioed other boats, who all asserted it was one of the slowest fishing days of the season. In the end, we collectively drank 12 cans of beer and caught 14 fish — only about half our boat’s daily catch limit, but still 14 salmon more than we had at the start of the day. There was nothing close to the threat of seasickness. There wasn’t much thrill, either.
I couldn’t help thinking that between the dead-calm seas and the very light drizzle and the cantankerous captain and the scanty catch, I should be frustrated with our day. But as we bobbed in plain view of Seattle’s foggy downtown, I realized that despite missing the so-called exciting parts of ocean fishing, the things I’d previously connected in my mind with the legend that was Ilwaco — bumpy seas, foamy air, upset stomachs — I was having a very good time.
In our spurts of conversation, we made plans for future adventures with Anne and Ben, and delved deep into the existential merits of the midmorning chili-cheese Fritos meal. When silence came, we let it stay as long as it felt comfortable sitting next to us. I sat still and quiet for whole minutes at a time. And hours later, I knew the waiting and the friendly time-passing banter and the plaintive hiss of cold morning beers, combined with the magic of occasionally pulling something alive and edible from the Sound’s black depths, were enough. I realized that, in my urge to do something with my dad that would appeal to him, I’d failed to recognize that the waiting part is, perhaps, what makes fishing such a strong pastime for him.
We walked off the dock with nine pound-size salmon fillets per couple. We were each about $200 lighter, which translated, I figured, to fresh-caught salmon at almost $50 per pound — twice the cost of king salmon at my local grocery store that week. From a home-economics standpoint, it was a terrible way to buy dinner.
But I got other things, too. Memories of a morning on the water, for one. Salmon with a story, which we saved and shared for Christmas dinner. A lesson in doing nothing. And the thought that perhaps when it came to Graham’s recovery, I needed to focus more on the fishing than on the catching.
Roasted Sockeye Salmon with Savory Plum Jam
My dad would have loved to try the cured salmon roe we attempted to make after fishing. But after misgauging the water temperature required to clean our roe, their milky-white sac residue remained, so we wound up with a lackluster version of traditional Japanese ikura. (We did, however, succeed in transforming strips of raw roe temporarily into beautiful pink pearly bracelets. Really, fish eggs make great jewelry.)
In lieu of roe, we ate lots of salmon. We roasted the final two fillets, which weighed in at about a pound each, for Christmas, served with a smear of a savory Italian plum jam I’d made over the summer. If you have the foresight to make the jam in August or September in anticipation of the holidays, it makes a lovely main course on a well-dressed table. (See the following recipe for suggestions on how to make the jam with cranberries.)
I cook sockeye and pink salmon mostly naked; because the fillets of those particular breeds are relatively thin, they cook quite quickly. When the small white beads of fat that signal salmon’s doneness begin to form on the edges of the fillet, I want to be able to see them.
You can use other types of salmon; just keep in mind that the thicker the fillet, the longer it will take to cook.
Makes 6 servings
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the pan, if desired
2 (roughly 1-pound) sockeye or pink salmon fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup savory plum and rosé jam with mustard (recipe below)
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Oil a baking sheet if you want to keep the skin on when you serve the fish. The skin should lift off when the fish is done, which means you’ll have more luck transferring the fillets to a serving platter in one big piece. But if you want the skin to stick to the pan, don’t oil it. You’ll be able to lift the cooked fish right off the skin, albeit probably not in one piece, unless you have a long, fancy fish spatula. I like doing this and serving the salmon in pieces on top of the jam.
3. Place the salmon fillets side-by-side on the baking sheet. Smear them with the olive oil; season with salt and pepper; and roast for 4 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of each fish. (If your fillets are bigger, 1½ pounds each, for example, it’ll take more like 8 to 10 minutes.) You’ll know the fish is done when the entire top of the salmon has turned a lighter shade of pink, and you begin to see small white beads of fat forming on the lower edge of the thickest end of the fillet.
4. Serve the salmon immediately, along with the jam.
Savory Plum and Rosé Jam with Mustard
In the dog days of summer, when dark, oblong Italian prune plums begin appearing on your neighbors’ trees, make a plea for a big handful, and make this savory jam, which is as delicious on pork or chicken (or on toast with a slab of sharp cheddar melted on top) as it is on salmon. In the fall and winter, substitute cranberries (frozen are fine) for the plums, which will give you a thicker, more substantial jam, but one that is also lovely on fish, pork or poultry.
If you have an abundance of plums, this recipe can be doubled or tripled and canned according to your jar manufacturer’s instructions.
Makes about 3 cups jam
1½ pounds small Italian prune plums, halved and pitted
1½ cups sugar
½ cup dry rosé wine
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 bay leaf
In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients over medium-high heat, and bring to a low boil, stirring occasionally, and cook until the sugar has dissolved completely. When the liquid is clear, let the jam cook for an additional 12 to 15 minutes, skimming the foam off the top occasionally, until the bubbles become thick and the plums are falling apart. Let the jam cool for a few minutes on the stove, then pack the jam into three half-pint jars, and let it cool. Cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it, up to 3 weeks.