SILVER BAY, Minn. -- The aroma came wafting around the corner of Charlie Tormondson's house.
Thick, slow-moving, pungent smoke.
It was coming from a maroon cubicle the size of a small telephone booth: Charlie Tormondson's smokehouse. Inside, a smoldering maple fire was doing good things to 30 or 40 herring fillets and several lake trout steaks.
Tormondson, 73, opened one of the smokehouse's plywood doors to have a look and a sniff. The herring fillets, lying on Tormondson's homemade chicken-wire shelves, were turning a delicious smudgy gold. So were the trout.
Tormondson liked what he saw. He closed the door.
The smell coming from that smokehouse was one that Tormondson has known for a long time.
The fourth of nine children of Chris Tormondson, a commercial fisherman from Tofte, Minn., Charlie Tormondson has been smoking fish since he was 10 years old.
"Dad used to smoke 100 to 200 pounds at a time," Tormondson said. "Three to the pound, whole herring."
While his dad ran nets in Lake Superior, Charlie and his brothers would tend the smokehouse. The responsibilities were heavy.
"The old man would start you out, and God help you if you got the fire too hot," Tormondson said.
Commercial fishermen on the shore smoked fish for two reasons in those days -- the late 1920s. One reason was to put some variety in their fish diet. A family can eat only so much boiled and baked herring. The other reason was that tourists exploring the new road along the North Shore liked the taste of smoked fish, and a fisherman could make a few extra dollars selling smoked herring from a shack by the road.
"We'd sell it for 6 or 7 cents a pound," Tormondson said.
Which was big money compared to the price they received for fresh herring they sent by truck to Duluth.
"Commercial, we'd sell herring for 3 cents a pound, dressed, iced and up on the road," he said.
Tourists -- and year-around residents -- still find it difficult to pass up smoked fish on jaunts up and down the shore today. Many firms smoke herring, ciscoes, lake trout and chinook salmon.
And many individuals like Tormondson fire up back-yard
smokehouses to impart that earthy flavor to the trout and salmon they take from Lake Superior and North Shore streams.
Smoking fish is easier than you might think. Outdoors shops sell factory-made smokers for small amounts of fish, but a lot of smokers -- like Tormondson -- simply build their own. A smokehouse needn't be fancy: just an elongated box, standing vertically, with a place for a fire at the bottom and some racks or hooks for fish in the upper half.
Tormondson's is made from metal siding he salvaged 15 years ago from a Dumpster in Duluth. He bolted that together to form three sides of his smoker, then built two plywood doors for the front. He cut fist-size holes at the bottom and top of the front panel for draft controls, and put adjustable metal flaps over each draft hole.
Fish can be smoked while hanging from dowels or hooks, or they can be laid flat on racks. Tormondson made his racks by stapling chicken wire to wooden frames.
It's that simple.
Tormondson's fire box is an old Hibachi charcoal grill he picked up at a garage sale. He starts his fire with charcoal, then adds small chunks of maple or alder or other hardwoods as needed.
Smoking fish is a two-step process, and the first part of it has nothing to do with smoke. The fish must be soaked for about four to six hours in a brine -- or salt -- solution.
Story has it that some of the old commercial fishermen on the shore would fill a 100-pound fish keg with water, then add enough salt to float a herring.
Tormondson smiled at that account.
"I use a potato," he said.
When the potato floats, the mixture has enough salt in it, he said. And you don't want to use iodized salt. You must use pickling or canning salt.
The salting is done for taste, not for preserving the fish. After the brining is done, the fish should be washed off with water to remove excess salt. Then they're ready for smoking.
The fire must be kept low at first, so as not to cook the fish. That's when Tormondson would get in trouble with his father. In those days, they hung their fish on nails, and if the fish began cooking, they'd fall apart and drop off the nails.
If the fish are on a wire grate, they won't fall through, but they still should be smoked at a low temperature first to dry the fish and form a good surface for the condensation of smoke particles. Then the smoking begins. Smoking can last from six to 12 hours.
Tormondson put his batch of herring and lake trout on at about 8:30 a.m. Monday morning, and took them off at 3 p.m.
Fish-smoking publications caution that the fish's internal flesh temperature must reach at least 160 degrees for at least 30 minutes. That ensures that the fish will be cooked. An air temperature of about 190 degrees is required for the fish to reach an internal temperature of 160. After that 30-minute
cooking period, the internal temperature can be lowered to about 125 degrees and the smoking process continued until the desired smoke flavor is reached.