Copper river madness

The word "marketing" can usefully be defined as "the art of persuading large numbers of people to buy something they can't afford, don't need, or won't use." But there are rare, rare exceptions to this rule. Twenty years ago nobody outside of Alaska had heard of "Copper River salmon." Now it's hard to imagine how we got through spring without it. Fresh salmon used to be a strictly seasonal foodstuff. Now you can buy the farm-raised Atlantic-species product year-round, and—though it's hardly worth eating except for the calories—it serves as a constant reminder how worth waiting for the free-swimming native species are. For reasons unknowably embedded in their anadromous genes, the first fish to deliver us annually from pallid pinkness faintly redolent of dog food are arguably the tastiest: the mighty kings (also known as Chinooks, after the spring wind which heralded their coming to inland Native Americans). And, now that the Columbia River run is a faint shadow of its former greatness, it's the fish heading back to the Copper River at the northernmost bend of the Gulf of Alaska that kick off the salmon season in a big way. Beginning as a modest marketing effort in 1983, "Copper River madness" has taken on a juggernaut life of its own. No fish market of pretensions can afford to ignore the phenomenon, no matter how pricey those first fat fish may be ($20 per pound retail isn't impossible this year); woe betide the trendy restaurant without its "signature" Copper River preparation. It's easy to dismiss the Copper River phenomenon as pure hype—until you taste the product. Part of its special appeal is simple freshness: Because everybody's clamoring for the first few days catch, and because it can be sold at superpremium prices, first-run Copper River king salmon will probably be the freshest fish you'll ever eat that you don't catch yourself. But it's not just freshness that sets Copper River fish apart. It's over 250 miles of raging spring meltwater from the Copper delta to its headwaters, and any fish that hopes to make it far upstream has to be loaded with energy-producing fats and oils. You can see the fat seaming a healthy Copper River fish— luscious-flavored, healthy-for-humans Omega-3 fatty acids just waiting for gentle heat to melt them into the surrounding, succulent, psychedelic-orange flesh. The flavor of properly cooked Copper River king is impossible to describe. Like all the most prized flavors in Western cuisine, like the freshest beluga caviar or a perfectly ripe peach, it's best when you do the least to it: Sauces and other flavors just get in the way of the unctuous texture and heady sea aroma released at the first bite. A great glass of wine's the only fit accompaniment—and even that's just to clear the palate between bites so you can experience the virginal rapture again and again. Send us your fish stories! E-mail

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