A Salmon Banquet off the Seattle Coast

A quick jaunt to Blake Island transports tourists from bustling city to native American cookout and dance show

IN the Pacific Northwest salmon is the king of foods.

The tasty fish is enjoyed around the world, but perhaps nowhere does it play so central a culinary role as in this region, where native Americans continue to harvest it alongside commercial fishermen. Salmon is often the main course at cookouts here.

Of the local varieties of salmon, the favorite of many people is fittingly known as "king," notes Bill Hewitt, proprietor of a tour company that provides visitors a traditional Northwest Salmon banquet on an island near Seattle.

Salmon is delicious whether poached, broiled, baked, or smoked, and the open-fire cooking at Mr. Hewitt's Tillicum Village is no exception.

The salmon, held aloft in a framework of cedar stakes, is baked next to an alder-wood fire. The method was developed by the Indians of the coast, for whom the abundant local seafoods have long provided a rich diet.

Now some local species of salmon are endangered, and Hewitt says most of the salmon he serves is farmed, rather than caught at sea - which he says ensures high-quality fish year round.

The alder-wood baking is notable not only for its low-tech novelty, but also for the resulting product: The flavorful fish is fully cooked but retains a moist and tender delicacy. The salmon is not smoked, but its taste has a pleasant hint of the fire. The fire sears the pink meat, sealing in the juices.

Hewitt, formerly a caterer, founded Tillicum Village 30 years ago to offer traditional food and native American dance performances to tourists and locals alike. The busy season is the summer, with three tours a day offered to individuals or groups. There are also occasional opportunities in the winter.

On one clear day, Hewitt's chartered boat sets out with a group from the local electric utility on a scenic 45-minute ride from downtown Seattle to Blake Island. Here, in permanent fire pits under the roof of a wooden longhouse, the salmon is already baking.

THE island itself is a park owned by Washington State. "We have the only major building on the island," notes Hewitt, describing this as something of a miracle. Tillicum Village was allowed to build its longhouse shortly after the state took over the island. The business sold the building to the government and now leases it back.

"It was started on a shoestring budget and stayed that way for 15 years," says Hewitt, whose son now manages the operation.

On arrival visitors are served a cup of hot clams in broth, a savory treat. Indoors, visitors see the salmon finish cooking before helping themselves to it.

Although Hewitt himself is not Indian, many of the workers and all of the dancers are. The cost of the four-hour Tillicum Village experience is about $39 per adult, with significant discounts for children and groups.

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