It has been years since my mother roasted a salmon head. But I can still hear that tick-tocking toaster oven, a sign of the dish’s imminent arrival at our dinner table. The “head” part of it all was scary to me as a child, but as an adult, I find myself craving the fishy butteriness of the cheek meat, what I call the bone marrow of the sea. Stirred through a bowl of freshly steamed Calrose rice (maybe with a dab of doenjang, that salty dream of a soybean paste), roasted salmon head is easily in my Top 10 favorite things to eat. But without the rice? Not so much.
Maybe it’s because salmon and rice belong together like cereal and milk. The rich, fatty salmon is tempered by the comfortingly bland white rice, the latter absorbing what the former renders in excess. The twin-flame combo may be one of nature’s purest forms of culinary symbiosis.
The rice farmer John Brennan has a saying: If you’re in the rice industry, you’re in the water industry, and if you’re in the water industry, you’re in the fish industry. When Brennan, an owner of Robbins Rice Company, described to me the life cycle of his rice, it sounded like a prose poem. As he recited the steps, I fell into a reverie: The whole drama takes about 150 days — May to October usually. The water is turned on for some 120 of those days, then turned off so the field can drain. Thirty days later, you harvest the rice. Then, you’re left with a field of dried rice stubble. Until 30 years ago, rice farmers could go skiing in the off-season, he said. But today, farmers are feeling pressure to do more with that spare time. For Brennan, the question is no longer just: How much rice did you produce? It’s also: How are you giving back to the land, and what are you doing with it in the months when you’re not growing rice?
Here’s what Brennan is doing: collaborating with the scientist Jacob Katz to turn a piece of the Sacramento Valley, specifically in the Yolo Bypass, into a floodplain that can be home to baby Chinook salmon during the winter months, as they make their way down the river system to the Pacific. Their experiment, aptly named the Nigiri Project (in reference to the beds of seasoned sushi rice draped in little blankets of raw fish), involves flooding Brennan’s rice fields once the grain has been harvested so that the depleted stalks can decompose in the water, thereby making those nutrients available to bugs and plankton, which then serve as food for schools of growing salmon. Puddles of muddy water, it turns out, are excellent “batteries” for the life cycles of salmon and rice. In his experiments, Katz found that not only did the fish he added to these puddles survive — they thrived, doubling their weight from week to week. “This is what a Sacramento salmon actually looks like, when you re-expose it to the conditions it was adapted to,” Katz says. “A real river system is the interaction between the water and the landscape through which it flows, and when you mimic those interactions, that’s when you ignite the explosion of natural productivity that allows for environmental abundance.”