About an hour after arriving in Valdez, and less than 24 hours after arriving in Alaska, I received an invitation to spend the night on a fishing boat in Prince William Sound. My dear friend S., on hiatus from the Redacted Museum, has been spending her summer working at the Valdez Museum and I took her up on the offer to visit. She’d borrowed a minivan from her friend Neal to pick me up in Anchorage, where my flight got in at eleven-thirty at night. Upon arrival I noticed the visible station of the sun and a quantity of handsomely taxidermied animals positioned about the airport, and felt certain that I’d landed in a different place.
S. was a familiar sight, though, and we headed off into the semi-darkness to park and sleep by the side of the road in the back of the van. S. said she had spied a nice spot next to a lake on the route to Anchorage and we were going to find it. This took about 3 hours, after which point we were very tired and went to sleep straightaway and woke up brightly the next morning to continue our 300-mile drive. We stopped at a few diners on the way and for some reason I became enamored with the idea of eating cherry pie every day of my trip, which, though probably fueled by the context of romantic Northwestern scenery, did not actually last long in practice (to my chagrin! I love cherry pie). I knew S. was staying in a nice house for the summer, and I even had fantasies of making a cherry pie there. Cherries in Alaska? Sure! I could find them somewhere… right?
After lots of lovely driving on the scenic Glenn Highway (and listening to the flabby but weirdly familiar CD that was stuck in the CD player and turned out to be Greatest Hits: Simply Red), we arrived in the port town of Valdez. Yes, that Valdez. I put down my bags and S. called Neal to thank him for the use of his van. Then Neal extended the offer to join him on his fishing boat for the night as he towed a smaller craft down to Ellemar.
Neil’s boat is named the Tempest, a wooden boat built in 1964 in Seattle that had been living in Valdez for about 20 years. I think I will say straightoff here that I know nothing about boats and have little interest in them in general, but I very much appreciate taking trips on them and the hard work their captains do for us landlubbers. This boat had a top floor and a bottom floor, a red paint job plus a yellow racing stripe, two johns, six bunks, a sink and stove, a light-up plastic palm tree in the back and two fishing chests used as hot tubs.
We were joined on our journey to Ellemar by Neal’s young cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend, who were really into fishing. (I guess I’m not so into that either.) So there was lots of talk about halibut, and the salmon runs (which were very poor this season), and black cod and jellyfish and other hook-accessible things of the sea. Neil brought up his oyster traps, and S. became very interested in getting a hold of their contents, making Neal promise to take us to the pilings in Ellemar the next morning.
The next day we ride out to the pilings in a small boat and carry a large netted bag back to the dock, where we dump out its contents and start sorting and cleaning. In addition to oysters we unearthed (unwatered?) some starfish, tiny shrimps, a sea star and lots of mysterious-looking slug and millipede-like things. We took about 18 of the biggest and cleaned them and ate a few right there on the boat. The rest we took back to Valdez in a cooler filled with glacier ice, and at some juncture I decided to make an oyster pie, which I had never done, but it seemed a fun thing to do with the very big ones that you’d gag on if you tried to eat raw, plus it scratched the whole pie itch.
We did not have an oyster knife back at home, and although S.’s friend Douglas swore that they could be opened with a butter knife, I did not have the muscle for it. Instead, he suggested roasting them on the gas barbeque outside, which would cause them to open wide enough for prying. So that is what I did. I used the following recipe, which is adapted from “Fraunces’ Oyster Pie”, found in The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook, and I made three smaller pocket pies out of dough for one 9″ double-crust pie. So it’s New-England-flavored made with Alaska-grown oysters, and it is really good, if you are into this sort of thing. It tastes like seafood, make no mistake.
1 large onion, chopped rather fine
1 rib celery, chopped rather fine
1/4 tsp. mace or allspice
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
10-12 fresh oysters, liquid strained & reserved
3 Tbsp. AP flour
3 Tbsp. butter
1 cup milk
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup aforementioned oyster liquid
Liquid for consistency, such as broth or wine
Enough dough for a 9″ double crust pie
1 egg, beaten
Make the dough and split into 3 equal portions; roll out on sheets of parchment or wax paper and keep in the fridge. If you are making a 9″ pie, pre-bake the bottom crust, weighted, in a hot oven and set aside.
Heat a few tablespoons of butter in a large pan and add the onions, celery, mace, & thyme, and stir until everything is soft and becoming golden. (You can also use lardons here instead of butter for the sautéing.) Make a white sauce with the flour, butter, milk, and oyster liquid quantities listed above. Add your oysters. (If they are very large, you may choose to split them.) If they are raw, cook until the edges curl. Add your liquid and stir until the mixture is at a nice, pie-interior-like consistency. Add salt, pepper, and check the seasoning; add parsley and stir.
If you are making a 9″ pie, add the filling, then lay on the top, crimp, and vent; if you are making pocket pies, position the dough on a cookie sheet and fill with a few tablespoons — be careful not to overfill! — brush edges with egg, fold, crimp, and vent.
Bake in a 400° oven, about 20-25 minutes (or less for the pocket pies). Remove from oven when the crust looks good and golden. Serve the 9″ pie with a spoon (not a slice), or wrap the pocket pie in foil and take down to the water to eat on the dock for lunch.
Makes 1 9″ pie or 3 pasty-sized pocket pies