Lessons from the Processing Line
Arianna Elnes, our Charter Processing Manager at the Salmon Shares Plant, remembers her first day on the fillet line
Generally, Sitka is not an uptight place or one that conforms to strict rules. Keys to apartments get lost indefinitely, corners of buildings are not necessarily squared, bike lights replace broken tail lights on motor vehicles, and every restaurant that advertises “pizza” in its name also serves Mexican food. Pizza in Sitka is typically served with an appetizer of chips and salsa. People are relaxed here. The speed limit down the main road is 35 mph, but most take their time at 20. The harbor master, whom I’ve never met, leaves his keys on the seat and tells me to move his truck if it’s in my way. There is a sort of laissez-faire vibe here that is completely intoxicating.
But on the fillet line, the same people who live in this relaxed and sometimes haphazard place teach me the importance of care and accuracy. I watch in awe as three men, focused over the table, seemingly effortlessly slice through each black bass in front of them, gently tossing clean, glossy fillets into a basket.
It’s not as easy as it looks. Dorcy, the main filleter, shows me the careful cuts required. The first is around the gill (“right behind the bone, feel for it with your thumb”) down to the backbone (“be very wary of the spines, they’re poisonous”). My knife cuts through the thick skin of the fish, sinks down into the flesh, and hits what I think is the backbone. It takes muscle. I turn my knife flat and slide it across the black bass’s back (“don’t use a sawing motion-with a knife at the right angle, it should cut through like butter”) and bring it back toward its head (“careful of the stomach if you want a clean workspace”). Lifting the flesh away, I use my knife to carefully pry the skin from the carcass (“let it fall away from the bone-assist it in the fall, don’t force it”).
My first fillet looks like something an animal has chewed on, but Dorcy tells me I’ll get the hang of it, eventually. It’s an art, he says. It truly is, and a precise one. There are a lot of things in Sitka that people are willing to nonchalantly let go: keys, tail lights, counting carbohydrates. But when it comes to the art of cutting fish, there is no cutting corners.