Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton are sisters, fisherman, and cofounders of the company Salmon Sisters—and now cookbook authors of The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska: A Cookbook with 50 Recipes. They grew up on a homestead in the remote Aleutian Islands and make their living harvesting wild seafood from Alaska’s bountiful waters.
We talked to Emma and Claire about their childhood, their work as fishermen in Alaska, their passion for sustainability and protecting the ocean’s ecosystem, and their new cookbook!
What was your inspiration for the cookbook?
We wanted to share our Alaskan way of life with stories and recipes from the sea, inspired by our upbringing on our family’s remote homestead in the Aleutian Islands and on our commercial fishing boat. Our family loves good food and we find that our work on the water and living close to the land motivated us to not only share our recipes, but to help readers learn about Alaska’s wild seafood, responsibly managed fisheries, and coastal heritage. The recipes are our family favorites and all come from our mom’s big blue three-ring binder on her kitchen shelf, where she collected recipes from friends and family over the years on the homestead—many transcribed from scraps of paper or notecards.
What was it like growing up in Alaska on a homestead and what was a typical day?
Remote. Our parents bought our homestead, Stonewall Place, before we were born. They moved to this part of the world to live close to the land, start a family, and work as commercial fishermen. Stonewall Place is on the Alaskan peninsula, the westernmost home on the continuous North American continent. It’s near the small Aleut village of False Pass, where there is a gravel airstrip, a cannery store, and a post office. Though there was also a school in the village, we homeschooled because it was too difficult to travel from our homestead to the village by boat in winter weather. We spent our entire childhood outside. The landscape surrounding the homestead consisted of green rolling tundra hills, patches of lupines, snow-capped smoking volcanoes, tidepools on the beach, and the Bering Sea. Life revolved around the seasons, around the ocean, and around fish.
We helped our mom look after the homestead—checking the dams in our creek and the waterwheel that provided us with power; feeding the chickens; planting potatoes in the greenhouse; catching and smoking salmon; baking loaves of bread; picking wild blueberries for jam and pies; gathering driftwood from the beach for our sauna, smoke house, and wood stove; gathering seaweed to fertilize the garden; digging clams; and finding octopus under the rocks at low tide. We depended on the land and shore for most of our food. Our dad was fishing for salmon, herring, and halibut year-round, and we started working on the boat when we were old enough for responsibilities on the back deck and strong enough to be helpful. On the boat, days were long—usually we were fishing before sunrise and working into the night with only a few hours of sleep in between.
Have you always known you’d make a career out of fishing?
We went to the East Coast for college, but fishing called us back to Alaska every summer. When springtime comes, no matter where you are, if you’ve grown up in a fishing family, you feel the momentum for the coming season. There was a year or two after graduating college when we were both unsure if fishing would become our career, but we missed the freedom of working outside all day and being in tune with the weather and the seasons, as well as the health of the ocean. We kept
prioritizing fishing and started putting our skills together to create a business. Salmon Sisters quickly became our full-time work. It is hard now to imagine our lives without fishing.
It seems like fishing is not so much a job but more a way of life. Do you feel that way?
Fishing has always been more than just a job to us, because it is what our family does together. It is an identity more than a profession, a way of life that follows the seasons and the fish and the weather. We think most fishermen would agree that the work they do is meaningful in ways far beyond a paycheck—we are proud to feed the world a wild superfood, proud to be part of a hardworking community of brave seagoing businesspeople, fulfilled by our education from older generations that have helped us become skilled on the water, full of respect for the natural world and its abundance. Fishing defines Alaska’s culture, its constitution, and its coastal communities. We depend on the ocean for our livelihoods, our food, and our traditions—so it is in all of our interests to protect the marine environment that provides us with so many of our opportunities and respect the wild places that raised us.
Fishing, to many, is still perceived as a predominantly male profession. Tell us about the community of women fisherman today.
There are many women involved in Alaska’s fisheries, some of whom have been our biggest role models over the years. Many of the female peers we grew up with are captains of their own boats and have all-lady crews. It seems that more and more young women are fishing with their families, whether they’re working during summers, or starting a life working with their partners. In general, there is an understanding in Alaska’s fisheries that women are as capable, quick, and skilled as the men on deck, thanks to the tough ladies who paved the way and set an example for the younger generation. Women who fish prefer to be referred to as “fishermen” instead of “fisherwomen,” since we are not treated differently than men based on our gender, only the quality of work we do. As women working on the water, however, we are always rooting for each other out of admiration and commiseration for the experiences we share.
You talk about eating wild Alaska seafood a lot. Why should we feel good about eating it?
Our salmon is harvested from Alaska’s pristine waters, where management is anchored in strict conservation practices, to ensure that the ocean ecosystem continues to thrive, and that delicious wild salmon will be enjoyed for generations to come. Sustainability is written into our state constitution and every day fishermen, scientists, conservationists, as well as state, federal, and international organizations, work together to responsibly manage our fisheries and care for our waters. The seafood industry is Alaska’s largest private sector employer; many fishing operations are family-owned, so choosing wild Alaska salmon means you are supporting Alaskan families and resilient coastal communities.
What would you most like to share with readers of your cookbook?
We’re excited to finally share our favorite ways to prepare seafood from our community to yours. We hope that readers continue to be interested in and learn more about the story behind their food and share in our desire to participate in a wholesome, healthy lifestyle. But most of all, we hope our cookbook inspires readers to make time for good food with family and friends!
What is your favorite way to prepare salmon?
We love to grill fresh king salmon on a cedar plank over the fire with sea salt and olive oil. Best served on the beach, with a beautiful view, friends, family, and fresh ocean air. If we are on the boat, the meal we like to prepare is our favorite soup, Coconut Curry Fish Soup, which is included in the cookbook!
The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska is available wherever books are sold.
Here is the recipe to Emma and Claire’s favorite Coconut Curry Fish Soup!