Category Archives: sick and wrong

Damn Yankees!, or Fiddlehead Strikes Out

Yeah, I don’t like the Yankees, not one bit. But this post isn’t about baseball, it’s about Yankee Fiddlehead Casserole and failure. We don’t see enough failure in the blogosphere. Just shiny success stories. (Actually, not entirely true. See if you can get through this.)

Let’s face it: anyone who cooks experiences failure—or they’re not trying hard enough. Right now I have a casserole dish more than half-filled with food that no one wants to eat. I suppose the tip-off should have been the mindless replication of this one fiddlehead recipe online. Dozens of sources for it, all with the exact same ingredients. I figured I was being clever to tweak it a bit and add a twist or two. No matter. What came out of the oven was, in a word, gross.

A big part of the problem was the fiddleheads themselves. Here in the Pac NW we’re limited to the lady fern for our fiddlehead fix. While much of the rest of the country basks in the cool shade of the stately ostrich fern, we get the coy lady, who dispenses her favors with a penurious fickleness. Now don’t get me wrong, the lady is a lovely fern, and can wow in the right conditions, but she’s no ostrich. (I’ve heard rumors of a few ostrich patches in the North Cascades and the far northeastern corner of Washington State…unverified as of yet.) Lady fern fiddleheads are not as firm as ostrich, and they can be bitter if not picked immediately after emergence. There are tricks to dealing with bitter fiddleheads, prolonged boils and such, or balanced ingredient matching. But I was in denial.

The marriage of tender, sweet ham and slightly bitter fiddleheads was headed for divorce court before the first rose petal hit the ground. My lunch of Fusilli with Fiddleheads the other day was delicious—in part because the lemon juice and zest brightened the fiddlheads, and the parm tied it all together with the pasta. There was no such tying together at dinner. So chalk this one up as a loser. Next time I’ll pay more attention to that little voice saying “Beware, beware…”

Thimbleberry Crisis

In other news, I’m halfway through my last jar of thimbleberry jam and already suffering from withdrawal. This is quite simply the best jam I’ve ever made, and it wasn’t even a fancy blend of ingredients—just thimbleberries, sugar, and a little lemon juice. You see, most of us haven’t eaten thimbleberry jam because the berries very rarely make it to a receptacle other than the palm of our hand before being greedily devoured.

For you jam enthusiasts out there: I advise restraint. Save enough thimbleberries during your berry reconnaissance—just a couple pints, if you can manage it—and you’ll be very happy come winter. And then very sad when that too is gone. August can’t come quick enough.


Been reviewing the first typeset pages of Fat of the Land the book! Excitement here at FOTL headquarters building. Stay tuned for cover art, which should be up soon…

Bon weekend everyone!

Wake-Up Call

California’s coastal salmon season has been cancelled. That’s right, all coastal fishing for salmon—both commercial and recreational—is kaput. The Governator has declared a state of emergency and filed for federal disaster relief. Even though the ban is for only one year, this could be the death-knell for the state’s storied commercial salmon fleet. Much of Oregon will be shut down, too. The San Francisco Chronicle has the story.

FOTL’s condolences go out to his brothers and sisters of the angle to the south, and though his home state dodged the bullet, Washington won’t be looking forward to a stellar season either, with chinook spotty and coho numbers way down.

These are not good times to be a salmon and steelhead fisherman. We can only hope that a move as drastic as this will provoke the necessary soul-searching to effect change. Salmon evolved to survive droughts, floods, volcanoes, predation, periodic downturns in marine productivity, and whatever else Mother Nature could throw at them. But they’re no match for dams, hatcheries, pollution, rapacious logging, profligate irrigation, flood-plain subdivisions, and desert golf courses. Do you want wild salmon? The choice is ours.

The Cost of Our Appetites…

…for cheap power, timber, produce, development, and so on.

A story in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer by enviro reporter Robert McClure raises the specter of $40 salmon this season. That’s $40 per pound! Federal authorities will be meeting near Seattle this week to decide the fate of California and Oregon’s chinook fisheries. As reported earlier, the California fishery is on the verge of total collapse, with returns at historical lows. We keep hearing noise about poor ocean conditions beyond our control, but really now: Could it just possibly be that agricultural diversions, subdivisions, dams, pollution, and a host of other man-made problems up and down the Golden State have finally taken their toll?

The modern history of salmon is a history of depletion and collapse wherever humans have settled and fished, with government failing the people at every step. The first to go were Atlantics in Western Europe, then Atlantics in the New World, now Pacific salmon on the West Coast. Is Alaska next? Fortunately the State of Alaska is taking steps to safeguard its prolific wild runs, such as a ban on farmed salmon. But timber, mining, and development continue to knock at the door.

Let’s look at McClure’s article a little more closely, because at least we have a reporter here who gets it.

* In the 8th graf he notes the rising price of chum salmon, the species of Pacific salmon at the very bottom of the commercial totem poll, the salmon also called “dog” because it’s frequently used to feed sled-dog teams rather than people way up north. This is a scary thought.

* The next graf is telling, with a quote from a seafood marketer who refers to America as a “nation of salmon eaters.” Good for us. Salmon are a superfood, loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. When managed correctly, they provide a renewable cocktail of nutrition on a massive scale. We would be beyond stupid to let such a resource slip away.

* In the 11th graf McClure explains that the Alaska catch forecast for this year is down from last year by more than a third—but no biggie, because last year saw a peak catch. Salmon are cyclical. While their numbers go up and down, if managed correctly the down years can still be good years, with no reason to fear the future.

* Graf 15 presents the enviro view of California: the slide is due to “diversions of massive amounts of water to farms and cities from salmon streams in California’s Central Valley.”

* The next graf is the usual hemming and hawing from the feds: “…an unusual weather pattern that pummeled the marine food web, killing tens of thousands of seabirds and leaving the young salmon with little to eat.” Maybe. But nature doesn’t usually conspire to eliminate a species as resilient as the salmon.

* A little further down McClure introduces an interesting wrinkle: the fact that, despite the catastrophic chinook projections, the commercial whiting fleet is dumping overboard an estimated 6,000 dead salmon off the West Coast, salmon caught in their nets known euphemistically as “bycatch.” Hello? Can the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) please do something about this? And even if you’re going to allow bycatch, can we please get those dead salmon back to shore so we can use them in the myriad in-river restoration projects going on that require salmon carcasses to replenish the nutrient load, projects such as this.

* Which leads us to graf 29 way down near the bottom of the article, the money graf in my opinion. In the larger picture this could be called a case of burying the lead, but give McClure credit—very few reporters ever get this far at all. In graf 29 McClure explains the nature of what is known in scientific circles as shifting baseline syndrome as it applies to Pacific salmon, and I’ll quote the graf in its entirety: “Overall, salmon runs have been pummeled in Washington and Oregon, compared with historic levels. For example, while scientists estimate that perhaps 5 million to 9 million chinook returned to the Columbia River each year in the late 1800s, the number returning there from 1979 to 2006 averaged just 135,000.”

There it is folks! Your greatest chinook salmon factory on the planet, the Columbia River system, has gone from producing an average of 5 to 9 million chinook annually to 135,000. California’s great chinook nursery, the Sacramento watershed, is in similar straits. Blame this sudden 100-year plummet on poor ocean survival? I think not.

So when—if—you pay $40 for two serving sizes of salmon at the fish market, ask yourself just what the cost really is.

(top image Adam Holloway)

The King Is…Dead?

A story has been developing in the last few weeks about the Sacramento River and its mysteriously vanishing run of chinook, or king, salmon. Last year’s run was 10 percent of the run just five years ago, and this year’s is projected to be even smaller. The San Francisco Chronicle has an update.

Is this really a surprise?

Certainly salmon runs fluctuate over time. But when hit with the multi-whammy of dams, development, irrigation, timber harvest, pollution, and innumerable other man-made affronts, even these incredibly resilient fish are finally waving the white flag. What really disturbs me is that the current low runs in the Sacramento might be seen by my children as not so bad when they’re older. This phenomenon is known as the shifting baseline syndrome, and it’s at the heart of our predicament.

It’s painful to imagine a day when salmon swim mostly in city fountains. (Photo by Stephen Rees)

Dept. of Sick and Wrong

If the trout are lost, smash the state.
—Tom McGuane

Today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a disturbing story about the chemicals and heavy metals found in our last best places. The levels are off the charts.

The report comes from a six-year study out today that examined pollution levels in eight western parks.

Quote: “We’re looking at some of the most pristine areas left in North America that are under the protection of the national parks, and we’re finding some alarming results,” said Dixon Landers, a senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory.

Trout from Olympic National Park recorded some of the highest mercury levels measured in the study and were considered unsafe for human consumption. Fish caught at Golden Lake in Mount Rainier National Park sported the highest levels of—ahem—flame retardants (PBDEs).

Quote: Among the report’s more surprising results were signs that some male fish were “feminized.” For years researchers have linked female egg proteins in male fish with the presence of obvious estrogen sources, such as birth control in sewage waste. In the park study, the protein was found in some of the fish with the highest levels of chemicals that can mimic hormones—including PBDEs.

FOTL is very unhappy about this report. FOTL doesn’t buy trout from behind a refrigerated glass case or trout wrapped in plastic or even trout from a restaurant. FOTL wouldn’t order Truite au Bleu from the most famous French restaurant where Truite au Bleu is the specialty, M.F.K. Fisher be damned. In short, FOTL doesn’t do farmed fish. FOTL catches his own wild trout in the backcountry and cooks it up proper.

And if the trout are toxic waste dumps, what about the mushrooms? Fungi are famous for concentrating chemicals and heavy metals in the environment. Should we be avoiding those gifts of the earth like the plague too?

There’s only one recourse: Get involved. Make change happen.