Photo: Yankee Maid's own virginal mermaid
The First Nation fisherman from Yankee Maid
asked if I'd like three king crabs they'd caught earlier in the day. Sure, I said, I'd be more than pleased to take them off him. We got talking, his name was Robbie, he was true-blood Tlinget descended directly from Kaawishté
, the tribal Chief Shakes over on Shakes Island. The Naanyaa.aayí
clan still reside in present day Wrangell. Robbie bought over the crabs which he'd cooked up already so I dressed them down for my favourite crab & cucumber sandwiches (always cut diagonally) and my delicious fresh-crab salads. This was just fine. Afterwards I wandered over to Yankee Maid
to thank Rob again. Come aboard, he said, you can meet Gerry our cook.
I learned from Rob & Gerry that Yankee Maid
is a commercial seine fishing boat that comes up from Seattle each year to fish for the season from Hoonah. I spent a good while talking and drinking their beer though unusually for fishermen they seemed to have a preference for good portions of red wine. I really warmed to these guys and we got along nicely, they were genuinely interested in our sailing adventures and pleased that I liked their food, especially their smoked salmon they'd pickled and then jarred in good quality oil. A few days later I sailed Sänna
over to Auke Bay north of Juneau to meet up with our good friends Leighton & Lynda onboard their ketch Morning Star
and the biggest prize of all... my youngest daughter Louise was flying in from London to spend a few weeks with me in Alaska whilst Marie and Henry were back in England... Henry's end of school exams were keeping them both busy. So, there I was in the complete mayhem that is Auke Bay harbour walking along the pontoon when I heard a booming shout... it was Robbie and there was Yankee Maid
rafted alongside other seine fishing boats that had filled the harbour overnight. "We got king salmon, you want one?" he asked with his beaming smile. Of course, I replied, king salmon is much sought after and I'd be delighted. It was good to see him again.
Around a week or so later, back in Hoonah with Louise and Morning Star,
I got into an argument with Gerry the cook who was Robbie's good friend. Gerry had again invited, Leighton & Lynda, Lou and me over to Yankee Maid
... curiously there was a stir amongst the seine fishermen now that a young single English girl was in Hoonah - we were already entertaining Braden and Sasquatch from Icy Queen
most evenings. Gerry said he was gonna make English style fish & chips and they would party again to boot.
I told Gerry that no one outside of England could make fish & chips the English way, not himself or even those wayward troublesome Scots to which he referred. Gerry proffered to disagree so I decided to explain. First, I said, the whole world thinks they know how to cook fish & chips but of course, they don't. It's a common problem we come across frequently. It's not just a case of battering the fish any style then just frying the 'fries', I explained with the sure knowledge of a well practiced and devoted consumer since a very early age. Traditional or 'proper' fish & chips are deep fried in beef fat, or 'dripping' as it's known in England, the potatoes must be hand-peeled and cut using one of two specific potato types... either the Maris Piper or the King Edward they're called and grown only in the English counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk where the soil is exceptionally rich and loamy. Nowhere else or any other potato breed will do. Once peeled they must be soaked in water for at least eight hours to remove the starch (the starch traditionally has a number of uses, including the starching of new sail canvas for English man-o-war frigates, also a method supposedly found in Viking long-ships). Furthermore the frier's apron must always be recognisably greasy and stained because this denotes great experience and devotion... there must be none of this hair-net and hygiene nonsense although that in itself wouldn't have been a problem on Yankee Maid
. They must also be served wrapped in newspaper and eaten by hand I said to Gerry... any sign of posh plates or even cutlery means something is just not right. A number of hand-down recipes are used for the fish-batter and, of course, the fish is always white north-atlantic cod or my own personal favourite - haddock... although fresh Alaskan halibut makes an extremely good and perfectly acceptable alternative. And then there's the mushy peas...
Mushy peas are a phenomenon unknown outside of England, even the Scots turn their noses up at mushy peas when they order their own version 'fish suppers'. I'm fortunate in that my wife Marie worked in a local mushy-pea factory for a short while when in her early teens and, back then, only five foot tall to a tadpole, so I'm telling you things now that have rarely been told before. Gerry had heard rumours and knew of mushy peas but not how they're produced or consumed, nor did he appreciate their importance when it comes to 'English' fish & chips. When I explained the traditional method of creating mushy peas, by young girls trampling around barefoot in barrels of soda soaked marrowfat peas I got the impression he thought me slightly not right in the head. But it's true, my wife Marie will readily vouch for that. And Gerry and the boys were in luck... we had several jars of mushy peas onboard Sänna
that Marie'd bought out from England because of her life-long and not often talked about addiction. The great English fish & chip challenge was on.
Well, we had a tremendous ball of a time.Yankee Maid's
sister boat Island Queen
pulled in alongside the dock later in the afternoon, she was skippered by Randy, brother of Yankee Maid's
skipper Paul. Alongside the other slip were our long-held friends, the seine fishing boat Icy Queen
who were already well known to Yankee Maid
and Island Queen
. Scott, Icy Queen's
skipper, his son Braden and nephew Christian, known as Sasquatch because of his great size and ability to pick up a fish-barrel single handed, were all there to join in as were the crews of other seine boats too, mingling easily with ourselves from the 'posh' sailboats... Leighton & Lynda of Morning Star
plus Louise and myself. Ubiquitous quantities of beer, whiskey and wine added to the tempting aroma of frying fish drifting out of Yankee Maid's
galley... with the distinct smell of simmering peas that'd travelled all the way from England.
I'm not gonna say if the challenge was lost or won other than to say that all of the seine boats were supposed to depart before daylight the next morning to hit a crutial salmon-catch opening. They never did leave. The battered halibut fresh-caught earlier in the day was simply superb and indescribable to those who've never eaten fish that out-freshens anything found in a fresh-fish market anywhere... nor in any upmarket restaurant. The chips, or 'fries' as these Yanks call them... well, you must remember that Gerry had no access to special ingredient beef-fat dripping or exceptional quality spuds (potatoes) but Gerry's greasy stained apron did meet with the required standards - probably more so than is normal. And the big cooking pot of mushy peas.... when I explained to all present how they were 'mushed' and made by young English virgins trampling around barefoot in barrels I encountered drunken disbelieving stares followed by ominous guffaws of mocking laughter. Out of curiosity the peas were tentatively sampled rather uneasily but invariably left untouched... although both Robbie and Gerry consumed ample quantities quite readily. Louise and me, we feasted contentedly, quite happy with the fabulous battered halibut accompanied by real English mushy peas. The fries...? only the English know how to make proper 'fries' and, as you know, not even the Scots can make...
Of course, the real point of this blog is quite straightforward. On a splendidly warm Alaskan summer evening in remote Hoonah harbour, the crews of two sailboats and who knows how many working seine fishing boats decided to get together and party on the friendly invitation of Yankee Maid
. There was not the snobbery or barriers found in many private owned cruising boats which fishermen generally loath, nor was it one of those organised cruiser's 'pot-luck-supper' things either, just a spontaneous acceptance of who we were and who they were, a shared friendship by those who work and sail often dangerous seas. For myself, the big thing was not just the quality time with my daughter but to see the easy mingling of First Nation and white red-neck fishermen through genuine respectful friendship... and that friendliness was readily extended to ourselves without question.
Later in the evening an extremely drunken, delightfully unstable Scott put his arms around me and declared his absolute genuine respect that there were still virgins in England...
Footnote: Truly English style fish & chips are becoming a rarity in all of the British Isles. With the advent of mass commercial catering and 'pub food' the art of producing what used to be the staple diet of the working classes that migrated to the infamous slums of the great cities and the coalfields created by the Industrial Revolution has largely disappeared... but not everywhere. Eating habits and food hygiene standards have taken their toll... consuming your ample portion of battered cod or haddock with traditionally cooked chips fried in true beef-fat dripping lest discerning customers demand their hard-earned money back and after the pubs have closed for the evening, religiously eaten from newspaper wrapping is a rarity... but not entirely gone. Nowadays deep-frying is done with conventional cooking oils, chips are supplied pre-peeled, already cut and sometimes part-cooked by large commercial suppliers... but not always. Cod & haddock stocks in the North Sea and North Atlantic have been decimated, as have the huge fishing fleets that traditionally supplied the uniquely British habit of consuming vast quantities of fish through thousands of old-style 'chip shops'. But not all of the fishermen have given up.
Ask any Englishman, Scotsman or Welshman who can claim a working class background and you will be told that you cannot find 'proper fish & chips' in any pub, nor in a restaurant of any description or indeed in most modern day fish & chip shops that are invariably owned and operated by friers of foreign extraction - good people that they always are. But if you ask around or if you are in the know, exceptionally good fish-friers do exist who still do things in the right way. The true secret is the beef-fat dripping which vegaterianism and food hygiene laws have largely curtailed, perhaps rightly so although that is entirely another discussion.
Mushy peas or other vegetable types are a regional variation encouraged by successive war governments seeking to increase nutritional values that can and does cause great debate. Intense working-class poverty required a source of cheap protein, animal-fats, carbohydrates and vitamin mineral content when sorely needed. Some regions of the UK have since introduced their own bizarre accompaniments such as gravy, even beans, curry sauce, cheese, sausages, meat pies etc etc etc. all of which detract from the original two-hundred year tradition of a largely war-torn, poverty-stricken working-class Britain.
To know a proper true-grit flat-capped Englishman is to understand the expression "ah lad, thems spuds's bin dunnd 'n drippin' fro'ol Greggy's butch's factri up t' rode."
Winterton Fish Bar
- a well deserved award winning tradional fish & chip frier... and I owe Debbie a plug.
Please visit our SV Sänna website for more details of our circumnavigation voyage from the UK. Also at www.facebook.com/SV.Sanna. Like our Facebook page if you'd like to receive more news about our sail adventure. You can contact us here.