Southern Culture

Published on October 7th, 2017 | by Warren Hines

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Southern Eats on Puget Sound

“My name’s Damon. This is my daughter Priscilla,” the Puyallup fisherman introduced himself from his skiff near the shore of Carr Inlet. We had seen each other over the past several days but had not yet broken the ice.

“Have you had a salmon yet?” he asked me.

“Well, I’ve eaten some, but I haven’t caught one yet.”

“Would you like a salmon?”

“I won’t turn it down.”

I walked my dog carefully around the netting rope anchored to the rocky beach by a couple of cinder blocks to meet Damon at the rocky, low-tide shoreline where he paddled his boat to meet me. He asked how many people were in my family, and handed me a 30” Coho.

I have certain traditions whenever I first make it back to my wife’s family property on Carr Inlet in the South Puget Sound. We always arrive late after a long journey, and if we’re lucky, we’re greeted in the morning by the orange and white iridescence of Mount Rainier across the water. After coffee, I make my way down to the steps to the bulkhead as soon as possible to survey the beach at low tide for oysters. Being the lone native Mississippian amongst my Northwestern in-laws, it is a solitary pursuit to collect a dozen fresh oysters to eat raw per Gulf Coast customs. I may make a trip to the grocery for any accoutrements I can’t find around the house for what is widely considered a perfect Southern lunch: raw oysters and beer.

Of course in Mississippi or Louisiana, a typical order of a dozen oysters consists of fresh oysters pulled off of ice, shucked and served over a bed of rock salt on a stainless steel tray with packets of saltine crackers, stainless steel containers of cocktail sauce, horseradish, and mignonette sauce with oyster forks and sliced lemons on the side. Of course in Mississippi and Louisiana, Tabasco or Louisiana hot sauces are provided, and customers dress and consume the oysters, seasoned on a cracker to their liking and wash them down with ice-cold beer.

My experience is a self-catered one, and while I don’t take the time to make a mignonette sauce, I shuck my own oysters, slice my own lemon, and make sure to have hot sauce, horseradish and saltine crackers ready to go. Slicing my lemon, I think of my chef cousin, Taylor Haxton.

“I tell my cooks, ‘This is the most expensive restaurant in town. Take the time to deseed the lemons. Nobody wants to find a lemon seed in their oyster,’” Taylor explained to me once as he artfully carved up yellow citrus in preparation for a family party.

I felt a bit self-congratulatory as I finished shucking my first dozen for this trip, getting up a few times to find any remaining items I may have forgotten from inside. I snapped a photo of the spread to send to Matthew Burdine in Taos, New Mexico. “You just made this desert seem much drier!” he replied to the photograph of my plate of oysters with a Coors 16 ouncer and the South Puget Sound in the background.

Filleting the Coho back at the beach house, I did my best to make the utmost use of the fish, although admittedly, my fileting skills are a bit rusty. My favorite preparation for salmon has always been smoked, so I got ahold of a brine recipe that involved plenty of soy sauce and a little bit of dry white wine.

A few days later, after sea kayaking out from Tofino, British Columbia, I lit the coals on the grill at our Pacific Rim campsite, in the midst of lush Pacific Northwest cedar forest and left to purchase some split cedar firewood from a park attendant.

“The man gets there around five o’clock,” the ranger told me.

As I drove up to the small firewood shed, I saw small cords of cedar stacked inside. Knocking on the door, I heard a voice say, “You have to go around. Use the other door.” The “man” appeared to be a local school boy learning the merits of entrepreneurship.

The travel-sized Weber grill looked like an over-filled sandwich after I rolled the richly brined salmon onto two chunks of cedar and laid the top of the grill over the fish. I gave my dogs bits that fell on the ground, and a few other partially charred morsels as rewards for their good behavior.

I asked my father-in-law what it was about the native culture that may have inspired my new friend to give me such a large fish. He explained that the Northwest Native Americans were among the wealthiest tribes in North America, because they lived in a land of plenty. The abundance of salmon, shellfish and wild game allowed native people and First Nations to spend time and resources on their famous art and totem poles.

As I looked further into the Puyallup tribe, I discovered that their motto is “Generous and welcoming to all people.” About two weeks after my first dozen Pacific oysters of 2017, my cousin and her husband, a native Seattle man, drove down to the Key Peninsula to spend the afternoon with us. As it turns out, he was also a fan of oysters. Brian remarked that they are often sold for $3 apiece at local restaurants. As I shucked the 18 oysters. He was a little taken aback at first by my spread with lemons, horseradish, hot sauce and saltines. He had never eaten an oyster on a cracker but was game to give it a shot. I was glad to be able to extend the hospitality of the bounty of the ocean to my guest, on a patio with a priceless view of Mount Rainier over a couple of cold brews.

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