Seeking neither a famous totem pole carver nor a halibut recipe, we happened upon both in one gentle, languorous, soft-spoken man.
Having taken a walk to Saxman Village to see its famed collection of totem poles and workshop, we were beckoned, through a door marked No Entry, into a long barn by its sole occupant who was dwarfed by age, the size of the adze he was wielding, and the enormous tree trunk he was subjecting to its tender blows.
Inside the carving shed the air was still, warm, and redolent with the scent of fresh-hewn yellow cedar. Time curved. Nathan P. Jackson, born Yelch Yedi eighty years ago, son of the Sockeye Clan on the Raven side of the Chilkoot-Tlingit tribe, was creating a new pole.
Much as we wanted to discuss symbolism and carving technique, he wanted to discuss his coming supper: fresh halibut he had caught the day before. When asked how he would prepare it Nathan invited us to step across the ropes and come closer.
The careful delivery of his family recipe took far longer than the cooking of the dish. The adze was frequently laid aside, the universal sign for bowl rendered repeatedly with strong gnarled hands to signify its use in the preparation, the instructions delayed by numerous pauses while the artist dove deep into his memory, intent on gastronomic accuracy, then the adze would resume its temperate sloughing of the massive timber.
It takes a long time to craft a totem pole, an act of reverence. We were honored to be so intimate with a moment of its creation.
Totem Carver’s Halibut with White Beans and Salad
Cook finely chopped onion until golden, add garlic and continue cooking until fragrant. Stir in a small amount of well-flavored stock, cayenne, and chopped tomatoes with their sauce. Add rinsed and drained cannellini beans. Simmer to reduce slightly, then turn off heat and allow beans to sit for a time to infuse beans with flavor. Rewarm to serve.
Slice wild-caught halibut fillet into inch wide pieces and season. Prepare a three step breading: flour, beaten egg, breadcrumbs seasoned and combined with grated parmesan – each in its own bowl. Dip each piece of fish into each bowl in turn to coat well, then allow to rest. Sauté until crust is golden brown and fish is cooked through.
Whisk a vinaigrette from good olive oil and white balsamic. Cube a firm-ripe avocado, and slice an orange between membranes to extract the fruit. Toss gently in the vinaigrette. Plate over finely shredded romaine lettuce. Salt lightly.