This month, as Wild Alaskan Salmon return home from sea to their spawning grounds in the rivers, fisher(wo)men are also returning home from a grueling six weeks at sea, where they tirelessly hauled moon-flecked salmon on deck and caught naps in between. This week, Wild For Salmon celebrates the return of their skipper, Steve Kurian, with a week-long Fishtival tradition.
As part of my recent series of interviews and recipes sponsored by Wild For Salmon, I’m honored to share Anna Hoover’s timely story, which in many ways, is one about homecoming. It’s also the mouthwatering inspiration for Salmon Cutlets with Fancy Sauce, which if you don’t like seafood (yet!), will be your gateway into the world of fish. And if you’re already on board, you’ll be ecstatic to have this easy, family-friendly dish in your wheelhouse. (A big thank you to Rob Kinneen for introducing me to Anna and tote races).
Anna is an Alaska based mother, fisherwoman, bush pilot AND filmmaker who is fiercely loyal to her mission: instilling in others a great reverence for the natural world and protecting her home and the last stronghold of Wild Salmon on earth, Bristol Bay.
Wild Salmon in Her Blood
Anna didn’t come by her sense of purpose casually. She was born into a lineage of fishermen who carved their identity and livelihood from the wild salmon fishery. She continues to do so today with her husband and four-year-old daughter, Amlia (named after one of the Aleutian Islands) in the fishing community of Naknek in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Anna’s father, John Hoover, was born in 1919 in Cordova, Alaska. His mother was half Aleut, the Russian name for the native Unangan people. When he was just seven years old, his father died, and as the only son and youngest of three, John had to help make a living for his family. So at nine years old, John began fishing for 25 cents for a red salmon and $3.00 for a king salmon, no matter the size. He became a skilled and agile fisherman, and adapted to the ever-evolving technology, from wooden skiffs and wax-dipped linen nets (to protect them from saltwater erosion) to aluminum boats and manufactured hardware.
John raised five children with his first wife, during which he had 24 different jobs, ranging from fishing, handyman, his own taxi service, and boatbuilding, where he learned how to carve wood. Not only was he prolific in his work, he was also a productive artist. He and his wife divorced, and he then met Anna’s mother.
Anna’s mother was raised by Norwegian fishermen, and introduced John to the Bristol Bay fishery, where he moved to start his second family. John immediately became a skipper (another term for boat captain), and together, John and Anna’s mother owned and operated four boats over the course of their marriage, the first of which was named Myuda (the title of an Unangan love song).
By the time Anna began fishing at age 11, her father had retired to his art studio, and her mother managed the family fishery. She hired a skipper and a deckhand, and she and Anna comprised the other half of the crew. When Anna was seventeen, she joined her Uncle’s crew for the first time, and from then on hired skippers for her family’s boat. Last year, Anna upgraded her boat to a new Myuda, and became skipper herself.
I asked Anna if it was common for women to be aboard ships in the fishing industry. She said that while they are outnumbered, there is a stronger female presence today than there was 150 years ago. I hear her smile through the phone as she recalls a native woman from Dillingham, who she would see every season steering her ship, her long dark braids framing her face at the wheel. “I recently saw her in town and had the chance to tell her how much I admired her.” Anna’s respect for her community’s traditions are a driving force in her off-season career as an artist.
A Natural, Native Artist
Like salmon fishing, Anna also has artistic genes. Her father was a renowned sculptor and painter, whose work embodied Native Alaskan traditions, interweaving humans, animals and the spirit world in seamlessly carved masterpieces. She recalls him saying his need to create, at times, felt like a curse; he was constantly generating new work. Anna grew up in his studio, and traveled with him to Washington D.C. when first lady Hillary Clinton at the time chose one of his sculptures for the White House rose garden, where she featured all-native artists. It was natural for Anna to follow in her father’s footsteps.
In college, Anna discovered that filmmaking made it possible to share the timeless, earth-centered rituals and wisdom of the indigenous populations in her region, in a way that resonated with the younger generation. Through captivating visual stories, she could showcase traditions that would make native descendants proud to bear their heritage.
“Cinematic storytelling that inspires our young people and reminds them how amazing their relatives are, imparts a sense of potentiality; it shows us ways these instructions on balanced and healthy ways of living can be celebrated and nurtured into the future.”
Anna’s films are unique in that they capture real-life beauty in real-time. She doesn’t rush the viewer through a plotline, but lingers on a scene and adds dialogue only when necessary. I had the privilege of watching a sneak peek of Anna’s upcoming film, “Whakarongo” (which means listen in Maori), which she produced in New Zealand as part of a film challenge for directors involved in the Maoriland Film Festival. (She managed to get there and back just before COVID-19 shutdown global travels.) The story follows two teenage, female protagonists. One is on her phone, unaware that the other is having a bad day, and wishing her friend would check in with her. In the end, they find their connection through a shared tradition. Without feeling dogmatic, Anna subtly conveys an important message about being present to the wild and loved ones. Stay tuned here for the release. To get a taste of her work, watch the trailer for her recent fiction film, The Last Walk.
“The natural world is under stress right now,” she said. “Humans need to change their relationship with consumerism, contentment, and the planet. This is what really fuels my fire.”
Anna’s devotion to indigenous art runs deep. After spending every summer in Alaska, Anna spent a brief period in the Pacific Northwest, before being drawn back to start a non-profit called First Light Alaska dedicated to facilitating native arts workshops throughout rural Alaska. She spoke longingly about Canada’s generously-funded native arts programs, including the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), which is exclusively produced by native people and features native content.
While Anna’s love for native culture pulses throughout her life, her greatest passion is to generate in others a profound respect for Nature.
She has a good reason why.
Save Bristol Bay
Anna’s home and that of generations before her, Bristol Bay, is in grave danger. For nearly fifteen years, local residents have been fighting a corporate proposal to build a large-scale open-pit mine at the mouth of the last wild salmon stronghold in the world. As reported by The Nation during a press trip on Anna’s boat, the mine would cover 8,000 acres, including a 608-acre pit nearly 2,000 feet in depth, and would harvest over 1.4 billion tons of copper, gold and molybdenum over the course of 20 years.
In 2008, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency compiled thorough research on the potential effects of the Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay. It was deemed disastrous, and the project was not approved to move forward. Now, twelve years later under the Trump administration, Pebble Mine is back on the table. Anna said “it’s disappointing to watch the government be so hollow in this shell of a decision, which isn’t based on truth, science or the people’s opinion.” She said the grassroots effort has been run ragged, being asked to give testimonials for 15 years without end in sight. She has friends who have become lawyers to fight the Pebble Mine, still to no avail.
“Salmon rivers, like these, used to be living all over the world.” Anna says. “Slowly, that ecosystem has almost become extinct. This is the last healthy one on earth… why not let it live and breathe? It’s the last one.”
I share Anna’s sentiment. It’s the reason I’m committed to eating only Wild Alaskan Salmon.
We share something else in common. We both desperately want our daughters to know the taste of wild salmon, to see wild salmon running in the rivers. Anna wants her daughter to grow up with salmon in her life, like she did, and her parents and generations before them. Salmon doesn’t just represent an ingredient or a paycheck. It stands for a sacred, ancient way of life. It represents the natural order of things. Without it, an entire ecosystem and culture would disappear.
Ironically, in order to keep Wild Salmon alive, we have to keep the fishery alive, by eating salmon. Anna and I both know this, and naturally, we turn to recipe talk.
Anna and I both love salmon eggs, otherwise called “roe” or “caviar.” However, I’ve only ever had it like everyone else in the Lower 48: topped on cream cheese (or a tangy goat cheese) and toast. (When I was in Alaska and pregnant with my first daughter, this was my superfood jam!)
Anna shared a recipe for salmon eggs that sounded otherworldly: boil them and then lather them with soy sauce and butter. In her neck of the woods, they’re referred to as “fish beans.” Her mother made them for her all the time, and her daughter now loves them. She explained that soy sauce found its way into Alaskan pantries with the Chinese population that came to work in the canneries. Lots of people in Egegik, where Anna spends her summers, know how to cook Chinese food. Anna remembers, “Tommy Wong taught everyone!”
But perhaps one of her favorite recipes was her father’s breaded, pan-fried salmon. He would cut thin slices off the filet, starting at the tail, bread it in whole wheat flour, and pan fry it with salt and pepper. She said it’s a great recipe for folks who don’t like to eat fish, because “who doesn’t love anything fried. They’re like fish chips!”
This sounded a lot like the chicken cutlets I made with my Italian mother growing up. I remember standing on a stool, pounding the chicken into thin pieces and dunking it in three dredging bowls: flour, whipped eggs, and breadcrumbs.
I often bread and pan-fry other fish, like cod, but had never thought of trying this method with salmon. I was IN.
The resulting recipe is inspired by John Hoover’s family fare.
Follow Anna on Instagram @annahoova for day to day Bristol Bay life.
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