COOS BAY, Ore. – At first glance it appears the reason that Jason Younker’s shorts are sopping wet is to keep them from bursting into flame as he hovers over a bed of coals that, in time, will grow to nearly 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
As it turns out, that’s not the reason at all.
He’d just returned the bones of his cousin, the salmon, to the sea.
“I have to go up to my hips in the water,” Younker, 38, explained as he tried to catch his breath between manning the salmon bake pits at the Coquille Tribe’s Mill Casino-Hotel for their annual salmon celebration.
As the story goes, since the salmon have offered themselves to feed the people, it’s hoped that by returning the salmon remnants to the sea that the salmon spirits will tell the fish families to return again to the people the following year.
“It’s a privilege – and I don’t mind it one bit. Our salmon cousins have sacrificed themselves,” he said.
Before he lets the bones go, Younker says a little prayer.
“This ensures that, annually, they come back to us,” he said. “I’m thanking them for their sacrifice.
The salmon bake is one of the Coquille tribe’s main annual events. The unfamiliar cooking style draws a crowd of shutterbugs snapping shots and gaping onlookers.
However, for those of American Indian descent, the salmon-bake is a tradition that stretches back more than 10,000 years.
“That is how we survived,” said Don Day, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who came to help with the bake.
The pit itself, filled with sand, is about 20-feet long by 3-feet high and 7-feet wide. Those working in the pits are constantly throwing cedar and alder logs into the fire to create a bed of coals. Once the coals are formed, they’re raked back and salmon, wrapped in foil, are chucked into the pit. The embers are then raked on top of the fish and both are smothered in sand, creating an oven where the fish will cook for about two hours.
Manning the earthen ovens is no small task. Burns are not uncommon from the intense heat, which Younker estimates can reach 700 degrees – enough to actually melt the sand itself, turning it an orangish color. Over the course of the two hours, the temperature dies down to about 200 degrees, Younker said.
“Ow,” Younker cries out as he wriggles one of his feet back and forth as he stands atop the sand, pulling back the coals with a rake.
A coal drops from his sandal – footwear he consciously chose.
“It’s a lot easier to shake a coal out of these than a boot,” Younker explains.
The burns are a small price to pay, Younker said the moment a smiling – and satisfied – customer stops by to comment on the fine cuisine. Moments after the salmon is pulled from the pits, it’s shuttled over to steam tables where visitors line up to get their share at $16 a plate.
Years ago, salmon wasn’t the only meat that was cooked in this manner. So were pigs, elk, deer, clams and virtually every other edible creature that roamed the wilderness. Day said for thousands of years on the Columbia River there was a cannery of sorts where American Indians dried and preserved various meats with salt from the Pacific Ocean to help tribal members survive the winters.
Chris Foltz, a banquet and sous-chef at The Mill restaurant, in the 115-room casino hotel, is in charge of making sure everyone is fed at the bake. He said about 300 people will eat over the two-day festival, which means about 16, 25-pound salmon.
“It’s my job to taste everything,” Foltz said. “That’s the hard part,” he said with a sly smile.
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