Skip to main content
Original Issue

Fish, fowl and smoke

The art of cooking with smoke, ail but gone the way of the smokehouse, is in for a revival on the patio, thanks to a couple of fishermen who caught a surfeit of trout

When the shipwrecked family in The Swiss Family Robinson built its permanent home on a tropical island the surroundings were nearly ideal—plenty of food, a beautiful location, with a little river splashing over the pebbles and the wide blue bay fringed by yellow sands beyond a tree-shaded grassy slope—or, as Mr. Robinson put it, "The scene which presented itself was indeed delightful." And what did the Robinsons do there? They smoked herring, salmon, sturgeon and trout.

"The boys and I built a small hut of reeds and branches," continued Mr. Robinson, "and then we strung our herrings on lines across the roof. On the floor we lit a great fire of brushwood and moss, which threw out a dense smoke, curling in volumes about the fish...." Since the island was stocked like a delicatessen with all sorts of foodstuffs that could be secured without effort, Mr. Robinson would seem to have been excessively industrious. Nevertheless, the Robinsons did not hesitate whenever one of them brought home fish or game; they built a smokehouse and soon, with happy smiles on their sooty visages, were piling green wood on the fire.

The fact of the matter seems to be that once people begin to smoke fish and game they find it impossible to stop. Certainly they cannot stop if they have caught the fish or shot the game. The picture on the opposite page, showing a salmon and a pheasant in a woodland setting, with wisps of hickory smoke floating through the leaves, is a sort of game-smoker's pinup picture, evoking the delicate aroma of woodsmoke and extremely delicious food. It helps explain why the Robinsons were so eager to set to it even if they already had enough to eat.

The present-day interest in home-smoked game started under similar conditions. Ewing Sharp and his brother, who operate an electronics firm in Bur-bank, Calif., were vacationing in the Bridger wilderness in Wyoming and, after backpacking 20 miles, found they had caught too many golden trout in those remote lakes to take home. They had two rolls of aluminum foil in their packs. "We had only to dig a trench for the fire," said Ewing, "chop some willow logs, set out four stakes and fashion over them an aluminum-foil chimney to carry the smoke from the fire to the fish." The smoked golden trout was so tasty that it opened visions of a commercial future. The new generation of patio sportsmen needed something handy, attractive enough to be used in the yard, small enough for family use, yet large enough to provide for neighbors attracted by the aroma of hickory. The Sharp brothers' efforts finally evolved into the Little Chief, selling for $29.95. About 5,000 of these have been sold, most of them in the Pacific Northwest.

Commercially manufactured smokers, however, give no accurate indication of the extent of the revival of interest in home-smoked fish and game, because most fish-and-bird chefs still make their own smokehouses. Dr. Robert Berwick, a San Francisco physician, made his own smoker by using a 30-gallon garbage can and several old coffee tins. Boring holes in the top of the garbage can for vents and placing one tin can on the bottom and another above, he smokes salmon, trout, venison and other delicacies, using charcoal briquettes to develop the heat and chips of apple wood or apricot wood to impart flavor. "It's all home-grown," said Dr. Berwick. "We even have apple trees in our backyard." In Vancouver, B.C., Carl Wilson, a steelhead fisherman, smokes his catches by a method imported from Norway: smoke from the fire in one shack is piped into another shack, where the salmon is smoked without being heated. In Oregon, where sportsmen smoke salmon, sturgeon, trout, blue grouse, deer and elk, the characteristic modern smokehouse is an outdoor shed built of marine plywood, with trays of quarter-inch galvanized hardware cloth. Jay Long of Corvallis is reputed to have one sample of everything furred, finned or feathered in his smokehouse, and the smoke hobbyists of the region follow his recipes with dedicated fidelity.

The real center of smokehouse enthusiasm, however, seems to be Bellingham, Wash., where making smokers out of discarded refrigerators is a community pastime. A few years ago a fisherman named Oscar Schenking removed the motor and freezing unit of one of these and put a coffee-making hot plate at the bottom. He used alder chips, filling a two-pound coffee can placed on the hot plate, to create smoke. He taped up the door before he went to work, after piling enough wood chips in the coffee can to last eight hours, and he found the steelheads properly smoked when he came home. The result was so successful that it soon became almost impossible to find secondhand refrigerators anywhere around Bellingham.

On Fidalgo in the San Juan Islands, Dr. J. K. Neils uses an old Army field oven on the lawn for his smoker. The field oven has an outlet for smoke near the top which makes just enough draft to keep the wood smoking. The alder is cut in small chunks and is kept damp so it will smolder and not flame. Dr. Neils and his wife Gloria, who are celebrated for their game dinners, usually start their meals with hors d'oeuvres of home-smoked game birds, sliced thin. Breast of duck, for instance, is boned, soaked 24 hours in light brine, sprinkled with unseasoned meat tenderizer and allowed to stand for one hour. Then it is marinated overnight in salad oil seasoned with crushed garlic clove, bay leaf, soy sauce and Spice Islands Spice Parisienne and smoked for five to eight hours.

One obstacle to any widespread acceptance of home-smoked game has been the contemporary notion that elaborate or secret pickling processes are involved. This is not so, as we shall see. Another obstacle has been the assumption that the smokehouse, which was an important part of the American rural scene until 30 years ago, existed only to produce ham and bacon, with smoked fish and game merely incidental products during smelt or salmon runs or in periods when more ducks had been shot than could be eaten at the moment. As commercial packinghouses took over the business of processing hams and bacon, the domestic art of preserving one's catch or game began to die out and virtually disappeared for decades.

What happens when wood is heated (but not allowed to burst into flame) and meat or fish (properly salted and seasoned) is hung above that wood is a fairly complicated chemical process with a simple result. Basically, charcoal is being produced, and the largest single component formed is acetic acid, a preservative which is the basis of vinegar. The effect of exposing the meat to the smoke is equivalent to soaking the meat in vinegar to preserve it, except that the preserving agent is conveyed in the form of a vapor, the smoke. The smoke not only acts as a dehydrating agent but also deposits a coating on the surface of the meat, and various phenolic and aldehydic bodies derived from the smoke and absorbed by the meat have a specific bactericidal effect.

How complex the preparations for smoking are depends on what one wants to achieve beyond mere preservation, in the way of nuances of taste or personal likes and dislikes. With the Little Chief, for example, you can, if you wish, merely clean your fish, rub them thoroughly with a mixture of equal parts of salt and sugar, let them stand under a few pounds' weight overnight and then smoke them the next day with no further preparation. The smoker itself is a metal box, a portable version of the old chimney smokers found in Colonial New England, with an upper chamber where the fish or game is hung and a lower door at the side where the smoke-producing heat is located. The box is about 16 inches square and three feet high. It gets moderately warm to the touch but not hot. The fish are placed on racks above a container, shaped like a frying pan, which holds powdered hickory. As the frying-panlike container is slid through the lower door and onto the hot plate, the hickory chars, the smoke fills the chamber with a thin, pale warmth, and the fish begin to change to a dusky golden brown almost instantaneously. Small fish are cured in five hours, big ones in eight. Since hickory powder is added frequently (and the container dumped of its ashes every two hours) some attention is required, but when the fish at last emerge, any amateur can understand why the Swiss Family Robinson looked forward with such pleasure to smoking.

Of course, fish prepared as simply as those described are merely a first step. Henry Beyers of Bellingham, who uses a four-foot-square cement fire pit in his homemade smokehouse, prepares his steelhead as follows: Clean, remove backbone and cut the fish into pieces six inches long. Soak them in heavily salted water for 40 minutes to an hour, drain and wipe them dry. Brush the fish with olive oil mixed with one large clove of garlic, crushed. Then sprinkle the flesh side of the fish generously with brown sugar that has been dried in a slow oven until crumbly. Leave the fish overnight in the refrigerator; build the smokehouse fire and, when the smoke is blue, place the fish on trays and smoke for 12 hours, increasing the heat at the end to 200°.

Oversmoking is a sin
Although only the breast of game birds is smoked by most hunters, Jay Long, the woodland gourmet of Corvallis, Ore., prepares the whole bird in this fashion: pick and dress the birds as if for roasting, then soak for 12 to 24 hours in a solution of 10 ounces of salt, 5 ounces of brown sugar and¼ ounce black pepper per gallon of water. Rinse and place in fresh water, to which garlic powder and Tabasco may be added, for two to four hours. Place the drained and dried birds on the grate and smoke at 100° for four to six hours. If the birds are not fat, baste with melted butter occasionally. Increase the heat of the smoke to 150° for another two or three hours. They should be served cold and the surplus stored in a refrigerator or freezer. "Once people get the knack," says Sharp, "they go out on their own and do practically anything they want in the way of recipes." The great sin in the woodsman's bible is oversmoking. Contrary to popular notion, the Indians of the Northwest make inedible smoked salmon of the texture and flavor of mukluks. They smoke it much too hard and presoak it in seawater. As the seawater often has a veneer of outboard-motor fuel, today's Indian-smoked salmon tastes of Old Evinrude.