The art of preparing fish

“Eat everything but the bones” was a sentiment shared at the first Art of Place lecture of 2013 at the University of Alaska Southeast Friday — the theme for the series this year is food — but Ed Kunz told me you can eat the bones too, if you prepare them right.


Ed Kunz and Percy Kunz, both respected elders, were generous with their knowledge, stories and dried fish at the well-attended Art of Place event about the preparation of local fish. There were several jars filled with traditionally prepared foods: smoked dog salmon eggs with high bush cranberries, salmon eggs, canned salmon of different varieties, canned venison stew, dried venison, salmon and halibut. The aroma of smoked salmon welcomed guests.

Ed is a house master and a story teller whose voice is low and quiet, the audience accomodated with rapt silence.

“The gift the raven of our legends gave us, the gift of our people,” Ed began a story, “The raven was flying over the water near Yakutat, and in one area the water was just churning and bubbling like it was boiling and he kept flying around that spot to see what was causing that. And all he could see was the turbulence of the water, so he landed on the beach and kept his eye out all night on that spot. While he was on the beach, a little dead bird came floating by and he picked it out of the water and that little bird had a thread hanging out of its heel, a piece of sinew, so he took that sinew and just kept pulling it out of the birds heel and he fastened one end to a stick that he pulled off the beach, and also the suction cup of a devil fish was in the water and he tied that to the other end of that sinew and he started casting out. After several casts, he finally caught something in the water and he started pulling it in. Pretty soon a house came out of the water and he couldn’t pull it out any further. He started looking around, calling for help, and the stones on the beach were just rolling their eyes — they couldn’t offer him any help. The water that comes off the mountain from the woods and the water, the sea water... gave him some sticks, so he reached behind him and fashioned little men and he told them he needed help. So they pulled in that house and in that house was all the species of salmon. The humpies, the dog salmon, sockeye, coho, king salmon.”

Ed said this story is comparable in different communities from different story tellers. A variation is that instead of just the salmon, the house was full of all sea creatures.

“So the raven disbursed the salmon,” Ed continued, “And told them where they were gonna spawn and in which order they would spawn. See, the raven gave us many gifts, the raven of our legends, he gave us many gifts — he gave us water, he gave us the sun and the moon and the stars, fire, he didn’t create these things, he took them from someone who had them, he tricked them out of it.”

The Kunzes spent a lot of summers at fish camp in Haines with Percy’s sister Dixie Johnson; Percy and Ed attribute what they know of fishing and preparing food to family.

“She had a fish camp out at 9-mile... there were certain spots that belonged to people who fished there.” Ed said — his aunt had a fish camp out there as well. “We’d stay out there three or four days, or however long it took us to catch some fish.”

“Whenever we’d see the corks in the water from the gilnet moving around, we’d hop in the skiff and go check the gilnet and take the fish out of the gilnet.” Ed showed off a carved fish club he had received as a gift (though he said at fish camp he’d use any stick big and heavy enough to be used as a club to knock the fish out) and demonstrated how a halibut hook carved by his father catches in the halibut’s cheek. “Dixie said that we should leave the fish, after we brought it out of the water, put it back in the water after knocking it out, we should put it in the water for about three days — the bones won’t be as hard.” (Step one to being able to eat the bones, too?)

After the three days, they would take the fish back to Johnson’s house and begin cutting them. He said you take the back bone out, cut the head off and always leave the tail — on the right side.

In a plastic tupperware container, separated by sheets of paper towel, were three dried sockeye salmon — some in the crowd burst into a fit of giggles as Ed admitted one was purchased at Fred Meyer, though the other two were from Knuckle Bay in Sitka. Ed used these dried fish, with the backbone out, heads removed and tail still on the right side and much of the flesh removed (which can be cut into strips to be dried), to demonstrate how they were set out to dry, lengthwise on a stick or a three-sided block of wood so the heat and gravity would allow the oils to drip.

At Johnson’s they had a smoke house, but that’s not a requirement for preparing fish. The Kunzes lamented not having a woodstove in the house their new house, because they used to dry fish overnight on a rack Ed built above the wood stove. To get the smokehouse flavor without the smokehouse, Ed said he would use brine and liquid smoke, which works drying over a woodstove or in a dehydrator. The key to long-lasting dried fish, it was shared, is making sure all the oils have dripped out — sockeye has a lot of oil. Though salmon was the hot topic for much of the lecture, the Kunzes brought in dried venison and halibut as well, and halibut can be treated in the same way as salmon, Ed said. The first time he dried halibut, he said, he didn’t work it enough, so it was hard as a rock. He had to turn a block of wood used for hanging fish on its end, then took a hammer to the dried fish, “pulverized the hell out of it” — they added water and ate it like that — “it was pretty good.” The key to dried fish that isn’t hard as a rock is to keep working it.

Dried fish keeps pretty easily if it is kept dry, but there are other ways to keep salmon that don’t remove all the liquid. These involve canning and Ed talked a bit about using a pressure cooker for canning. While much of what the Kunzes teach is based on thousands of years of tradition, they have also embraced some modern conveniences like the pressure cooker to keep their traditional foods fresh. Sanitizing the jars and lids and cooking for the right amount of time is as important to enjoying a jar of smoked coho eggs mashed with high bush cranberries six months later as the recipe itself. This treat was made by Ed Hotch and given to the Kunzes as a gift.

“The native people have been on this land a thousand years, a thousand-plus,” Percy said, “All that time we’ve been on this land, everything that was here when we came is still here because we’ve learned how to gather... and we believe that everything has a spirit: the fish, the water, the air — everything has a spirit. And when we get a salmon, we use everything. Even the heads are used.”

Percy said her sister was raving about smoked salmon heads, so she decided to try it and said, “Boy, they were yummy.” There’s a certain way to cut the tail to preserve the flesh on both sides, then you smoke it and eat it with potatoes.

Percy said they once were given leftover boiled salmon heads from a party held for Ed’s mother Cecelia Kunz, and she recalled thinking, “What am I going to do with this?” She decided to pickle them. “I took out the cheeks, the nose, the eyes, and I pickled them. I’d never done it before, but hey, it’d be yummy.”

Percy never got any feedback on the pickled salmon, “he never comment on it,” she said, “But I bet it was yummy — I never did try it myself.”

“Indian cheese” is another food to add to the “sounds questionable” list. Percy said she’s made some — it involves fermented salmon eggs formed into a solid — but she’s afraid to try it, though she has tried it made by someone else before and thought it was good.

Salmon head adobo is a sure hit, though.

For the bits people may not be so keen on eating, like bones, there are other options. Percy showed off a set of earrings made from halibut ivories, bones from the halibut’s ears, she said. Once, having received a halibut head, she and Ed cooked it and took the remains to a beach to feed the eagles — “Oh boy, they had a big potlatch out there” — she had hoped they would eat everything but the ivories but, to her disappointment, it appeared eagles have no problem eating bones.

Once the Kunzes had finished their presentation, they opened up the floor to questions. One of the first, from Alaska Writer Laureate Nora Dauenhauer, was if the audience would get to try the dried fish. The answer was yes, and as Percy and Ed answered questions, she set to tearing up more dried salmon, halibut and venison in a basket for guests to taste. Other questions varied from how to clean salmon eggs — set the eggs on a plastic tennis racket and the single eggs fall through (“White man’s trick,” Percy laughed) — then rinse and rinse and rinse. Another guest asked about how long to keep preserved fish and the consensus was dried fish could keep forever if it’s properly devoid of liquid, and canned fish can keep a long time unopened, but should be eaten soon after opening — “How long does it last?” asked a woman in the front row, “How big is your family?” Another suggestion was “the nose knows.”

If your mouth watered and your attention was piqued, if you have questions whose answers only an elder likely knows, don’t miss the rest of the Art of Place series, taking place Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon at the Glacier View Room at the University of Alaska Southeast, Feb. 22, March 22, and April 26, featuring traditional and contemporary gathering and use of native plants with Libby Watanabe, traditional and contemporary gathering of herring eggs with Roby Littlefield and “Putting it all together: Edible Art of Place” with Helen Watkins and Gerry Williams. If this first event was any indicator, some members of the audience have as much knowledge to share as the speakers, so don’t miss out.


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