Reflections of Food and Water by Tom Meckfessel
I pretty much grew up in the “gourmet ghetto” of the bay area. When I was a child living in Marin I used to take trips with my mom over to Berkeley just to buy coffee from Peet’s or cheese at the Cheeseboard. I spent countless hours thumbing through Diane Kennedy’s “Cuisines of Mexico” and watching Julia Child cook on TV. I appreciated good food but spent more time watching my mom cook than actually cooking. That would all change when I started working as a river guide.
Through a strange series of events I ended up working for a small river outfitter out of Bolinas. We were a gypsy company that would load up the Suburban at the beginning of the summer and head north doing trips in California, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. I was on cloud nine as I spent my summers running rivers with one of the most eclectic groups of guides and clients ever assembled. And, one of the best parts about this small company was that they were almost as obsessed with food as I was.
While often compromising on appearance and equipment, James Henry River Journeys never cut corners on food. Everything was made on the river. I never saw a bottle of salad dressing on a JHRJ trip and we were one of the first companies to run wine tasting gourmet trips. In the early years it used to take us 4 days to shop for a Tatshenshini trip in Seattle driving all over the place to pick up just the right ingredients. We would then pack up the sole suburban with everything needed for a 14 day, 24 person trip (including, boats, frames, gear) and put it on the ferry up to Haines, AK.
I quickly learned the ropes on how to cook for large groups and found that the place I was most comfortable was in the kitchen. For almost 20 years I cooked my way down some of the most beautiful rivers in the world and to this day cannot separate food and running rivers. When Team Clavey gets the itch to go boating the first thing I do is start thinking of the menu. And while everybody loves being on the river on a nice hot summer day, I find it most enjoyable to cook on cold weather trips: November Rogue trips with aged rib eyes on the fire pan and single malt scotch, April Illinois trips with Chile Verde from the dutch oven and homemade tortillas, halibut chowder for our Tashenshini expeditions and floating the Brooks Range with Ptarmigan Paella.
Paella has become my single favorite dish – mainly for the reason that it’s a one pan meal that’s both rustic and elegant – and, if done right, tastes phenomenal. Even though I’d been cooking paella for a number of years I had never thought seriously about making it on the river. Paella, for those of you who may not know, is a Spanish rice dish that is cooked (traditionally over an open fire) in large, shallow circular pans. It is difficult to cook on the river because you really need two fire pans side by side to handle a decent sized group. Last summer I got invited to organize a trip on the Marsh Fork of the Canning, above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range. After years of talking about paella on the river, I finally put on a pair of man-pants and made the ultimate decision – We would be eating paella in Alaska.
Weight, when flying into the Alaskan bush, is always an issue, so taking two large fire pans was definitely out of the question. Instead, we went old school and built a pit fire with a fold out grill to hold our 22” pan. My good friend Jim (who introduced me to paella and also convinced me to start my own paella catering company, Paella del Reyes) and I were the designated cooks on the trip and we decided that we would do two paellas on the trip – one traditional and one with ptarmigan (if we could bag some) as the main ingredient. We also decided that we could use the 22” pan as our general skillet.
We had the pan pretty well disguised when we were loading the bush planes in Fairbanks but that did not keep the pilots from asking us what the f*#k was in the green bag. When we told them it was a paella pan the conversation quickly deteriorated and included such comments as, “you MUST be from California” and “did you bring a sword to go along with your shield?” To make a long story short, we had two great paella feasts – both around midnight – and we did have some unforgettable ptarmigan paella up above the arctic circle.
As a side note: Hunting ptarmigan in the Alaskan bush is not terribly difficult as the birds are pretty much everywhere. But regardless of the sheer number of the little buggers, you can take it from me – “Safety Tom” – that you’ll find your hunting success multiplied, not just by how close you get to the birds, and not solely by your aim, but mostly whether or not you’ve taken off the safety when you pull the trigger.
And it’s inspiring advice like that, that keeps you coming back to the Clavey blog.