A long time ago, when I was young, springy and inveterately unemployed, a chef named Francois Kissel asked me to help out on the heavy lifting for a benefit bash he was catering for the ladies of St. Mark’s Cathedral. The heavy part entailed opening a couple dozen dozen oysters, but they were only the baseline for the event. The big featured dish was fresh-caught Alaska King crab, flown in live and cooked on the spot. (For some reason this was illegal at the time; maybe it still is.)
The man who set up the air-lift was Erling Nilsson, one of two brothers who between them were the Port Chatham Packing Company of Ballard. Most of the brothers’ cash flow, as I recall, derived from canning the humbler species of salmon for the humbler sort of consumers, but they also, more for love than money, used to cold-cure and smoke whole sides of the noble King salmon and sell it from a humble cubby on one side of their Ballard HQ. Erling brought along a few samples to supplement the crab pièce de resistance.
So there we all were, shucking away in our kitchen whites, in an improvised scullery in the basement of St. Mark’s, the hum and gabble of a great many well-bred ladies underscoring our labors, when we became aware of a change of register in the background buzz, a heightening of pitch. The sound was accompanied by the clatter of dozens of well-shod female feet heading, to our surprise, straight for our little oyster closet.
The door burst open to reveal a veritable Brunnhilde at the head of a gaggle of attendant Valkyries, bellowing, almost before she was in the room, “Where is the man who made that divine smoked salmon??”
I’m ashamed to confess that this was my introduction to Julia Child. I didn’t have a television set back then — hell, at the time I didn’t have a fixed abode — so I'd never watched her cooking shows on public television. But maybe it’s just as well; to see that towering figure literally pounce on poor dear Erling — probably five foot-six in his biggest boots — and embrace him warmly without breaking for breath in her rhapsody of praise for the new gustatory experience: Pacific King salmon, sugared and salted with delicacy and cold-smoked so gently that the fillets were softer and more buttery after processing than before.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that afternoon marked a new era in our attitude towards Northwest seafood; ours and the nation’s. Mrs. Child didn’t just praise and run. When she got home she began talking up the Nilsson brothers' marvelous product to her circle of friends, a circle which could make or break a culinary reputation with a phone call.
Port Chatham Nova Smoked King Salmon became a rival of caviar on the buffet tables of the wealthy and famous, at least for a season. And we locals had the outside ratification we needed (and secretly still need) to bring ourselves to believe that something we have or make is just as good or better than anything the rest of the world produces.
I still remember Erling, his post embrace face pink with pride and embarrassment, saying: “What a wonderful lady!”
Erling and his brother have since passed on, content and full of years. The Port Chatham brand was sold, along with the secret Nova-lox recipe, to Trident Seafoods, which has continued to manufacture the product, along with dozens of lesser others, mostly for mail-order and through tourist outlet stores, under the Portlock brand. You can still buy nova-smoked sockeye trim in hermetically-sealed freezer bags, at their outlet down at the end of Market Street, for a price so low it will make your eyes bubble.
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