There is an art to smoking fish, that age-old method for preserving food. The ritual can resemble more of a lab experiment such as making sure the proper cooking temperature is achieved and the right chamber is used to impart maximum flavor.
But smoking fish is not an exact science, and it all comes down to the person at the helm — taking into account whether the wood might be too moist, or if it’s windy that day, or if there is too much salt or sugar or too much of anything in the brine.
So many factors contribute to the alchemy of wood chips becoming engulfed with flames and releasing plumes of fragrant smoke to perfume the meat and fish.
Kyle Becmer of the Bellaire Smokehouse learned the secrets of smoking meat and fish from his grandfather, Tim Watters, the patriarchal figure behind the northern Michigan business that sells smoked fish (whitefish, trout, and salmon) as well as jerky and sausage plus an impressive selection of craft beer (on a visit a couple of years ago we spotted in the cooler an elusive Founders KBS, which we promptly snapped up).
After a battle with cancer, “Smokehouse Tim,” as he was known around this small village, passed away in January. But his legacy lives on as his wife, Karen, Becmer, and three close friends keep the smoked fish and sausage coming.
“(Tim) had a chance to show Kyle the smoking and the meat cutting last December,” says Karen Watters on a recent Saturday at the smokehouse.
It’s nearly 90 degrees on this late spring day, and Becmer and Watters are standing side by side at the blazing hot smoker grabbing trays of salmon and trout, which has been smoked for hours over sugar maple wood. They work quickly to transfer the fish from racks to sheet pans, which they’ll quickly take back to the garage turned Bellaire Smokehouse to make sure they meet customers’ needs for the day. Customers filter in and out, some repeat customers seeking more pate or fresh whitefish; they’re out so Becmer will have to make a run to procure more.
At age 21, Becmer seems comfortable stepping into Tim’s shoes.
“He didn’t know it but he learned watching and following Grandpa,” Watters says.
In northern and upper Michigan, transforming fresh fish through smoke is a longtime tradition, especially among well-known fishing families such as the Carlsons in Leland, where Fishtown has been preserved faithfully to tell the story of the town’s rich maritime history.
Many of the original fishing shanties are now home to unique shops along the brilliant blue-green waters of the Leland River that flows into Lake Michigan. And today, Fishtown is one of the only working commercial fishing villages in the state of Michigan, preserved after the family sold the property to the nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society (the family still runs the retail operation in the little, white clapboard house).
The Watters family would eventually create their own tradition. The Saginaw natives moved to Charlevoix, where they had a bed and breakfast. Tim began experimenting with smoking because a fisherman friend would bring in his fresh catch to the family. Then they sold the business in the ’90s and moved to Bellaire, where a passion for smoking would evolve into something more.
“At the time I was working at Bay Harbor, and it basically came down to, ‘Well, Tim, you have to get a job or start a new business,’ ” Watters says.
A half hour and some thinking later, Tim tells his wife, “What do you think? How about smoked fish and jerky and fudge? There’s nowhere around here to get that.”
Family trips were the idea behind the smokehouse, which was born in 1997.
“When we were younger and the kids were smaller we used to camp and we used to go to a place across the bridge on north end of St. Ignace,” Watters recalls, “and there was an old man with a little shack. We used to buy smoked fish from him and when we were in Charlevoix, there was John Cross and then when we were here there was nowhere. That’s what made (Tim) think we should do smoked fish here.”
Today the shop is bustling from Fourth of July through Labor Day, when the Bellaire Smokehouse will see 50 percent of their business, selling hundreds of fish a week, especially whitefish, both smoked and fresh, as well as their housemade pate. The business has mainly been through word of mouth, building a reputation for its quality meats and fish created through the process that Tim perfected over the years.
He also had his own way of checking when the fish was done.
“When you chew it and it’s like (makes a lip smacking noise),” Watters says. “That was always Tim’s thing, when he would take that top piece and do that.
“He would say, ‘That’s right. I did good.’ ”
Indeed, smoking fish is an art.
Special thanks: Papa Joe’s Birmingham, 34244 Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-723-9400.
Passion For Pate
As a native Chicagoan living in Michigan, I experienced several existential food crises when I first moved here in 2004. To me, hot dogs must be topped with everything but the kitchen sink. Deep dish is supposed to be a round pie groaning from the weight of sauce, cheese, and sausage, not a square, thick crust with cheese on top of sauce (I eschew both because I prefer thin crust).
But one thing Michigan has over Chicago? Smoked whitefish, a creation that celebrates one of the Great Lakes’ greatest gifts. To me, summer in Michigan means eating whitefish while lounging on a deck, preferably by a lake.
I began to embrace the idea that Michigan was now home when I began to explore it town by town with my boyfriend, seeking out the best food along the way. And as our relationship deepened, so did my connection to the Great Lakes State. Fresh cherries and apples at you-pick farms. Smoked chicken wings at roadside barbecue shacks. And always plenty of whitefish and whitefish pate.
Summer now entails trips to our friends’ lake cottage in Fort Gratiot where we smoke all kinds of meat and fish. One of our favorite things to make is smoked fish pate. Just add crackers and wine or beer.
Smoked Fish Pate
Recipe by Jake Williams and Dorothy Hernandez
3 cups water
½ cup plus 2½ tablespoons salt
2½ tablespoons brown sugar
1 pound whitefish (you can also use lake trout, which has more oil and more flavor)
8 ounces cream cheese
½ tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Combine the salt, sugar, and water in a large plastic container and submerge the fish. Place in refrigerator and brine 4 to 6 hours. Remove the fish from the brine and place on a raised rack to dry in the refrigerator uncovered (this is key because the drying will create a pellicle — coating — that will allow the fish to absorb more of the smoke) until completely dry, about 8 hours.
Smoke the fish for about 18-22 minutes over applewood and lump charcoal (you can use a barbecue grill if you don’t have a pit-barrel smoker or chamber), until the fish is opaque. When it’s cool, break up into large chunks.
In a mixer, combine the fish, cream cheese, black pepper, lemon zest, and soy sauce until all ingredients are well incorporated.
Part of our 2016 Food Issue series on iconic Michigan dishes.