Kiyo Marsh and Laura Cooper are masters of what you might call “extreme cooking,” picking up their skills in their jobs as boat cooks (and deck hands) on Alaskan commercial fishing boats. Along with Kiyo’s sister, Tomi, they wrote The Fishes & Dishes Cookbook: Seafood Recipes and Salty Stories from Alaska’s Commercial Fisherwomen (Epicenter Press), an IndieBound notable pick. They spoke to PW from Seattle about cooking in 30-foot seas.
PW: How did you come up with the idea to write a cookbook?
KM: When my sister and I were fishing together, we did a lot of cooking. We used to joke about how funny would it be to have a cookbook. We’d call it Cooking in the Ditch [the “ditch” is the trough of a wave]. We’d have little icons saying “you could cook this in 30-foot seas” or “this one you could only cook at the dock.” It wasn’t until I stopped fishing that I had time to put the recipes all together and gather stories from friends. Laura came on to the project and really helped move it forward.
PW: Do you use cookbooks on board?
KM: Yes, we use a lot of beat up, really old cookbooks that are great. Lots of times you start with an idea and then just work with what you’ve got. There’s a lot of improvisation. There’s only x amount of things on the boat, and places like Dutch Harbor [along the Aleutian Chain, approximately 800 miles southwest of Anchorage] have very little in the way of fresh vegetables. There’s what you get out of the ocean, and then whatever else you have around.
LC: We are very fortunate to live in the Pacific Northwest [both women now live in Seattle], where there’s a bounty of fresh vegetables. Now that we’re both down here we can augment all of the recipes with local produce.
PW: What are some of the best, or easiest, dishes to make on the boat?
KM: In the summertime we’d cook a lot of salmon on the barbecue, grilled simply or with different sorts of marinades. But I never made it easy on myself. Even though the crew would’ve been happy with some canned vegetables and a roast, I was making crab foo yung or salmon croquettes. Obviously you don’t want to be frying things when you’re rolling around in 30-foot seas. But in general, things that are sauteed are pretty simple. It kind of depended on the situation and how heavy the seas were.
PW: Obviously, cooking on land is a lot easier than cooking at sea. But are there any benefits to cooking dinner in a galley?
LC: Not really, not in terms of ease. My boat had a stove that was gimbaled, which means it’s on pivots, so if the boat is rocking, the stove isn’t moving as much. But Kiyo’s stove was fixed, so her cooking job was much more challenging. She said she used a lot of bungee cords. It’s extreme cooking. You don’t worry that the galley is tinier than a New York City apartment kitchen. You’re kind of concerned with not having everything you’ve made landing on the floor.
But there are two things nice about cooking on a boat in Alaska. One is that you have seafood that it is extremely fresh. The other is, in Alaska, if you’re not fishing, there are down periods, and you have a captive audience [to cook for]. Or people from different boats come over and we’ll eat communally together. There’s time to celebrate food when you’re in a down period.
KM: I totally second that. You get everyone rafted up against you and it’s really fun. We’ve had Thanksgivings in Dutch Harbor, we’ve had turkeys going in everyone’s oven. There’s a great sense of community and all this bounty from the Alaskan waters. It’s a nice thing.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.