An affable old sea barnacle has washed up along the shores of Hertel Avenue.
Earnest “Earnie” Thomas left Buffalo 31 years ago, and spent most of that time as a seafood inspector for the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation. Eventually Earnie made his way back to Buffalo, to be with members of his family, including his daughter who he opened a seafood store with in Eden in 2010. Living in Alaska for 25 years has given Earnie an insight into the world of seafood that has made him an expert among experts when it comes to procuring the freshest fish in the region. Ernie’s connections in the industry means that he gets what he wants, when he wants it.
I walked into Earnie’s new seafood shop (an old gas station) as he was waiting on a customer. As he talked to the woman, he meticulously folded wax paper edges over a piece of fish that she had just purchased. As he folded, and taped, and folded… he told her a story about his days in Alaska. The man was literally reliving his adventures in his mind as he packaged her purchase. Upon her exit, he told her a quick joke and said, “My name is Earnest – I cannot tell a lie.”
After she walked out, I walked up to the counter. Right off the bat, he said, “My name is Earnest, I cannot tell a lie. Want to try some seafood chowder?” I told him that I was mainly curious about his business endeavor, which was probably the wrong thing to say, because for the next two hours (or so it seamed), we hunkered down over an electric burner and a frying pan, cooking up seafood chowder, fish, eating and slurping, and talking about Earnie’s explorations of The Last Frontier.
There are two things that you need to know about Ernie. Don’t talk politics with the man, and don’t try to out-joke him. He’s got small town political grudges a mile long, and a never-ending supply of jokes.
There are a couple more things that you should know about this saltwater sea skipper – he’s got a story behind every piece of fish, and he has a tendency to wander around the store pointing to Alaskan maps, flipping through scrapbooks, extracting newspaper clippings and every so often pointing out his wolverine hat – the last wolverine to live on some island in Alaska – a unsuspecting vermin that he shot, through the body of another animal that the Wolverine happened to be devouring. According to Earnie, it’s the warmest hat on the planet. The thickness of the animal’s coat was the only way that it could have lived in the harshest of Alaskan conditions… that is, until it came across Earnie. Needless to say, the hat is not bullet proof. Ever since the incident, Earnie was able to combat the same winter elements that the wolverine was formerly able to endure. Survival of the fittest I suppose.
As Earnie talked, and I tried to keep him on track, my eyes continually wandered around the shop, which looks like a bait and tackle shop on a wharf in Alaska. I couldn’t help but notice that the menu featured an array of food items that looked to be sort of unusual, but I guess it all made sense considering where this guy was coming from. Until Friday, I had never heard of reindeer hotdogs and caribou jerky. But there they were, along with a lot of other recognizable fish, along with some that were a bit more obscure.
As we talked, with the frying pan sizzling before us (he was preparing seafood pierogi with pineapple), I began to hunker down, kinda feeling like we were heading out on some grand Alaskan adventure. In my head, Earnie took me along the banks of the Yukon River in search of Eskimos making squaw candy. At times, we headed out to sea, inspecting bulkheads and sleeping in freezing conditions, with rolling waves and salty dogs barking out in the night. We visited canneries and a crazy German guy smoking salmon in unsafe conditions in Juno. We collected fish samples, and even escaped near death from foxes that were tracking us down during a whiteout. We even paid a visit to Earnie’s cabin in Alexander Creek – “You can stay there,” he said. “What?” I replied. “You can stay there… at my cabin. Anyone can – I arrange expeditions to Alaska.’
Along with expeditions, Earnie also bottles mashed up king salmon fish heads that he says is the elixir of life – pure Omega 3. “You take some of that everyday, and you’ll be the healthiest guy around,” he told me. “All of this is healthy [pointing around the hut]. I want my customers to be healthy because I want them to live to 150 [laughing]. I need to keep my customers healthy, or I won’t have any customers in a hundred years. This fish is the freshest. There’s nothing bad for you. When you come back, I’ll have more recipes for you, and more fish to try. My customers will be healthy – they won’t be eating the bad stuff that’s out there. I call in an order of seafood by a certain time today, and UPS has it to me the next day – it doesn’t get any fresher or healthier than that. I know what I’m ordering because I know the people who are sending it to me. I know what to look for, because that was my job for 25 years.”
Looking at the time, I am realizing that I could write about Earnie all day… the stories, the people, the fish, the animals, the maps, the cooking, the Omega 3… the line of gloves that he is coming up with, made from tanned fish! “It’s all healthy, all natural, wild and all American!” Earnie exclaimed, incrementally raising his voice.
I didn’t have time to tell you about the parking ticket that made him curse off Elmwood and head to Hertel. Or the Vietnam vet loan that he never got. Or the drywall guy who screwed him over. Or the local developer that shafted him. Or his plan to export veggies from Eden to Alaska. I’ll gladly leave some of these stories for you… along with an array of fun-loving jokes that he’ll be shouting out after you, as you’re walking out the door with, hopefully, a perfectly wrapped filet of fish in your hand.
Exclusively Alaskan Good | 1650 Hertel Avenue | Buffalo NY | 716-369-6961