Wandering through Seattle’s Pike Place Market in spring is like scuba diving for the first time: you are surrounded by a new world, one that you have caught scraps of before but never been fully submerged in. Here, produce and seafood reach us from surrounding farms but also from boats that have yawned across the Pacific and from the cautious, calloused hands of at least dozen local foragers. A huge hallway lined with produce stands and fresh flowers, clogged by tourists even in winter, the slow shuffle of the stunned trying to comprehend vegetables like romanesco1, fiddleheads2, fifty kinds of mushrooms. Men in overalls stand with ripe peaches and sharp knives, carving fresh samples for tourists. A friend of mine refers to the market as “the Costco of farm-to-table,” but to me it’s a place of awakening, a breathing, pulsing arena for my favorite sense: taste.
I meander, sampling, chatting. I discover that purple asparagus isn’t just another pretty vegetable; it’s sweeter, due to higher sugar and lower fiber content, and perfect for your summer grill, with a touch of char and a bit of snap left in the stalks. I break off a piece of raw sea bean and crunch down and am shocked at the burst of ocean that envelopes my tongue, briny as seaweed but brighter in flavor. The woman standing next to me suggests tossing them raw into a salad or sauteing them in butter to serve alongside local halibut.
Wandering farther along brings me to the fisherman’s stalls, where open-mouthed salmon the size of small children are packed into shaved ice, wide-eyed and gaping back at the gawking tourists. People take selfies with foot long lobster tails and ask about the halibut fishing season, get advice on the best way to ship these warriors of the Pacific back to their families out East. And all around me, in the market, at the restaurant I work for, cooks and servers and customers and purveyors are anticipating something bigger, the buzz and whispers congregating into one excited, looming question: “When will you have Copper River salmon?”
Every place has its delicacies. As a child growing up on Long Island, the first hush of summer set my mouth watering for the mulberries that grew in my uncle’s backyard, richly sweet berries warmed by the sun, like tiny bites of fresh jam, small as raspberries and twice as fragile. In South Carolina, the fancy restaurant I was working in was thrilled to receive a shipment of coveted shad roe, the egg sacks of an otherwise mostly useless fish, fat membranes brimming with delicate fish eggs, its chalky flavor light and almost liver-like, seared and served with butter, bacon, onion. In the PNW, locals and tourists alike begin frothing at the mouth sometime in mid-May when they realize the moment they’ve been salivating for all year has finally arrived. It’s Copper River time.
Before Washington was a blip on my radar, I knew about Pacific salmon. When I worked in Arkansas our chef would take a trip to the airport twice a week to receive Alaskan Kings packed on dry ice. We were the only place in Little Rock who had it, and had the audacity to recommend it medium rare in a town where most people ate even their steaks well done. I’d grown up on the East Coast, was used to the beefier, meatier, redder Atlantic salmon and I was in awe of this pinker, creamier species. Pacific salmon was the first time I tasted the West Coast, the first time since leaving home that I contemplated living anywhere but back in New York, and as I chased fresh Pacific salmon with a Willamette Valley pinot noir, I was convinced I had to taste more someday.
Years later in Seattle, I finally face my first Copper River season; if it’s on menus beyond this region, I’ve never seen it, had never even heard of it until I moved here, even though plenty of restaurants across the country covet it as much (or more) than Pacific Northwesterners and place orders weeks ahead of time. Copper River salmon is special, and only available for about one month each year, from mid-May to mid-June, because the fish has to be caught before it begins its trek upstream to spawn. The fish, knowing the miles ahead will be arduous and steep (a roughly 3,500-foot climb), spend months at the mouth of the river gorging on small squid and shrimp and fattening themselves up the way ranchers stuff their herds with corn before the slaughter. This makes the fish more fatty, more rich, more meaty than their plumpened, lazy counterparts. Many people think this makes the fish the most delicious salmon to swim the Earth.
I’ve been hearing about Copper River salmon since I moved here last summer and began working in a restaurant that only, ever, serves its salmon fresh (not frozen!), like most places in this area. I had just missed CR season but still had to know what it was and why it was special in order to pass my server test (most decent fooderies have their prospective employees prove their menu knowledge before they’re allowed to take the reigns and sell food to guests). Since then, I’ve been anticipating the fatty, meaty red fish along with the rest of the PNW and, apparently, the world.
At first bite, though, I was unimpressed. The salmon is indeed meatier, redder, more salmon-ey than regular salmon, like salmon on steroids. In fact, it reminded me of the very Atlantic salmon I’d been relieved to escape from when I left the East Coast, the salmon that used to make me think I didn’t like salmon when it was cooked, preferring the light, buttery flavor of salmon sashimi so much that I put it raw on my tongue and roll it around, barely chewing, so that it practically melts in my mouth. The lighter flavor of Alaskan salmon is exactly what I seek when ordering a cooked salmon dish, and the Copper River salmon, while definitely robust, was not the salmon I was looking for. At $60 a plate, the disappointment was even more heartfelt. I understood why others would seek it, but in my case, I paid a lot of money to be let down, as is the risk with high profile foods.
I’ve been displaced by hype before. Most of the world’s most exclusive foods are things I’ll never taste and in most cases – Beluga caviar, for instance, or bird’s nest soup – this doesn’t disappoint me too much, because it seems more about hype than actual flavor (this doesn’t count the foods that I can only dream of tasting). The hype is odd to me, though, because it concerns the exclusivity and experience of something that’s about to disappear. Human beings have always had a strange need to possess beauty in a way that lets us return to it. We take pictures of sunsets, decorate our homes with artistic paintings or collages of craft beer coasters and collect lavish rugs, books, clothing, jewelry – whatever the fetish, there’s a material version of it.
Food, though, is not something that can be possessed in such a staying way. The art of eating is very zen, a momentary sensory revelation that must be consumed in order to be enjoyed. You can eat as slow as you like but eventually the art you’re paying for will be gone, absorbed fully into yourself, becoming a part of you as much as it disappears. In the case of Copper River salmon, it was an experience I don’t regret; now I know what I’m missing, and I know it isn’t much. Now I can move forward to another highly coveted, somewhat seasonal food: the crunchy, spicy tater-tot nachos served from grease-spewing food trucks at the Sasquatch Music Festival. Hey, not everything coveted has to be classy. Remember to revel in tastes that are cheap.
1 A spikey, light green broccoli-cauliflower hybrid
2 Green spirals that unfurl into ferns when not harvested, roasted, and covered in butter