A Taste of Cordova
Earlier in the summer I was asked to judge a costume contest at a pet parade. I learned an important lesson that day. When kids (we’re talking 6-year-olds) put their heart and soul into their costumes, cajole their rabbit into riding in a wagon or get their cat to don an Elsa wig, everyone is a winner. Did I pick first, second, and third? Yes. Were there tears of disappointment and howls of despair? Yes. That afternoon I became the most hated woman in Palmer, AK.
But that’s okay. I take my judging seriously. Being asked to be a judge is an honor. Someone thinks enough of you to leave decisions of great import on your shoulders.
Which is why when I was asked to judge this year’s Taste of Cordova cooking contest I said “yes” immediately. The honor. Well, and the free food. And the opportunity to promote Edible Alaska in front of a food-loving crowd. But mostly the honor.
Taste of Cordova was part of Salmon Jam, the annual fundraiser for the Cordova Arts Council. Proceeds from Salmon Jam help support year-round cultural and education activities in Cordova. Tons of music, events, races, and more kept attendees busy all weekend.
The rain held off as Cordovans young and old hustled up to Ski Hill on Saturday with their entries swaddled in bath towels and packed into mason jars. Platters were unwrapped, garnishes laid out like memorials, and the long tables started to fill with the seasonal bounty of the seaside town.
Of course there was salmon - salmon poke, salmon mousse, curried salmon simmering in a crock pot. There was pickled salmon, salmon wontons, and smoked salmon lollipops. But although Cordova is known for its salmon, it’s also home to wild mushrooms and berries, seaweed and geese, edible flowers, rhubarb, and fresh herbs coaxed from tiny gardens. We ate all of that, and more, washed down with homemade kombucha.
My fellow judges (Christa Hoover, Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association’s executive director and Kevin Worrell - Musician and MC of note) and I worked our way slowly through the repast. We nibbled and conferred, shared opinions on flavors and textures, and jotted notes on our clipboards. I went back for seconds on a couple of dishes (judge's prerogative).
The decisions weren’t easy. That table was representative of Cordova as a whole. A small town in a difficult to reach location (no road!) that supports the arts, and each other, often through cooking. A friend of mine told me that when someone brings a newborn back to Cordova there’s automatically a 3-week meal train set up for the family. These people love food, and for the most part, they love each other.
How can you tell someone they aren’t a winner? Back to reality. I’d like to say that everyone was a winner, but 5 entries were more winners than the rest. So without further ado, here they are:
Denali Brewed - Porter Beer Brine Kippered Sockeye Salmon - There were only 2 entries into this category (the other was a moose stew with a rich gravy) and they were both delicious. However, if you could have tasted a bite of Dan Gagnon’s kippered sockeye salmon with a little preserved lemon and sour cream you probably would have agreed with us - award winning. A perfect bite. And a chance to thank Denali Brewing Company for keeping the beer flowing all weekend!
Fabulous Flora - Charlotte Westing’s sweet and sour cranberry crumble was the one I went back for seconds on. Though we were a little divided about the tartness of the filling (it was tart), I felt like the dessert was balanced, and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream would have added that final touch of sweetness. The crust was perfection, and the cranberries were harvested wild. It was a no-brainer for my winning vote.
Best Presentation - Picture a golden brown and glistening whole roast goose, bursting with wild rice stuffing, nestled in a bed of fireweed flowers and accompanied by stink currant jelly and you have our winner for Best Presentation. Congrats goes to Cordova’s mayor, Clay Koplin, for bringing some good taste to politics.
King of Fish - Lance Westing’s pickled fish took the prize here because we were all in the mood for something classic. Pickled fish. We loved the texture, the flavor, and the ingenuity here, and it was comforting to nibble on a piece of tradition. Here’s a recipe you can use to pickle your own prize-winning salmon.
Best in Show - Diane Weise took home the big prize for her Copper River Poke Stack. Good thing she made a lot because we could have devoured this dish. Not only was it gorgeous (it was also a contender for presentation) it was delicious. And, it came towards the end of the judging, just when our palates were ready for something fresh and light.
Thanks again to everyone who entered, I'm already looking forward to next year. (That is, if they do me the honor again.)