MASTERMIND: T.R. Durham

Smoking has taken its knocks in recent years but for smoked fish fans, there's only one thing to say: Yes, please!

Ann Arbor smoked-seafood fanatics – and they are legion – follow their noses to an obscure corner of
Kerrytown on downtown's northern edge. There, around the corner from Eve The Restaurant, they find the manna they seek – but only if they time it right. 

Durham's Tracklements and Smokery, at 212 East Kingsley Street, has peculiar hours. Aficionados have found it worthwhile to adapt themselves to its schedule – Wednesday and Friday, 10-3, Saturday 8-3 ...or by appointment.

Offering smoked fish to the world since 1992, and celebrating its 12th year in Ann Arbor, Durham's exists because of one man's determination. T.R. Durham (don't ask him what "T.R." stands for – it's a family name he's keeping to himself) grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a town known for St. Louis pizza and not much else. The pizza is thin-crust and topped with a regional specialty, "
provel" cheese – a squishy combo of processed cheddar, Swiss and provolone.

"It wasn't much for food. There was no fish – just Mrs. Paul's fish sticks.  I figured when I left St. Louis, that was it for the Midwest," he recalls.

Despite that early lack of piscine inspiration, Durham went on to become a severely obsessed foodie and, eventually, food-smoker extraordinaire. T.R.started Tracklements  in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1992, mostly wholesaling to fancy Manhattan food emporiums and Whole Foods stores. He moved to Ann Arbor three years later, along with his wife, Susan Douglas, who had accepted a high-profile job on the University of Michigan faculty. A retail store was the best way to attract new customers, Durham determined and so he set up shop, gradually expanded his offerings to include meat and the eponymous condiments.

"It was a way to get away from fish. I started with dusk breast, then added pork and lamb. I like to use new things on the market for the braised meats - Berkshire pork, Kobe beef.  Some cuts are too big to smoke (they won't fit in the smoker in manageable batches) or take too much refrigeration space," he observes.

Space is always an issue. The Tracklements shop is tiny and overflowing its bounds. Customers are strictly limited to the doorway plus three of four steps in. The staff doesn't have much more space than that, either.

Much of the traffic is the result of national publicity. In 2001, The New York Times'
Marian Burros included Tracklements in her round-up of greatest hits in mail-order foods – the first time any product had been chosen unanimously by the NYT panel, Durham points out. More coverage followed and Tracklements became the smoked word on many a foodie's tongue.

But what the heck does "tracklements" mean, anyway?  According to Michael Quinion's edifying and entertaining website,
WorldWideWords.com, it's an obscure term, used almost exclusively in Britain, for any kind of savory condiment served with meat. Its roots may be found in the Yorkshire word tranklement, meaning ornament or trinket.

Despite the international recognition, Tracklements is still half business, half hobby, Durham confesses. 

"The volume varies widely month to month. We sell a couple of hundred pounds a week normally, but during the holidays, we sell 1,000 pounds a week – a ton and a half of fish within a few weeks!" he relates. The shop sold 7 tons of cold-smoked salmon alone in 2007. 

"Sales of hot-smoked salmon are growing by leaps and bounds," Durham says. "I started with a little smoker from Cabela's, smoking two sides a week. Now it's up to 20 sides a week or more. Trout and mackerel sales are also really taking off. I used to eat half of what I made."

Durham's prices are modest for what he's selling. At more than $20 per pound, it's still a deal. A half-pound piece of smoked fish or braised Kobe beef au jus is less expensive by far than a meal for two in a white-tablecloth restaurant and at least its equal in quality.

High quality food resources need the support of food writers, but they aren't getting it –
Durham bemoans the decline of food journalism. 

"Former NYT food editor Craig Claiborne once published an article about New York City's
Pastrami King with so much detail and depth, you could make pastrami at home," he added. "That's gone today for the most part – the exceptions are Jeffrey Steingarten, who writes about food for Vogue, and John Thorne, writer/editor of the Simple Cooking website."

Florence Fabricant, another New York Times food writer, is a Durham favorite, along with Jamie Oliver, Bobby Flay (Bobby Flay's Bold American Food), Paul Prudhomme and Marcella Hazan.

"
The Zuni Café Cookbook (by Judy Rodgers) tells exactly how to do it – her recipes work. James Beard's Fish Cookbook is a classic," he continued. 

Inspired by these writers no doubt, Durham has decided to join their ranks, authoring
The Smoked Seafood Cookbook, just published by the University of Michigan Press (a steal at $26.95).

The book delivers easy innovative recipes from America's best food smokery – "beyond the bagel and brunch" as the tagline notes – including recipes from chef-icons such as Mario Batali and Ann Arbor's own Sara Moulton, who parlayed a gig cooking at the Del Rio into high-profile jobs for Gourmet Magazine and The Food Network. The celebrity recipes come thanks to the book's editor, Joe Mooney, who also persuaded Durham to take a shot at publishing.

It's beautifully illustrated by Noel Bielaczyc, who comes by his familiarity with fish through working at
Monahan's. You can, of course, find the book online through the publisher or better yet pick up a copy at the shop, where there's a chance of persuading Durham to sign it.

And while you're there, indulge in some of the many temptations that vary by day and season. Tracklement's original and still best-selling product, Highland Smoked Salmon – hand-rubbed with a dry cure of salt and brown sugar, then lightly smoked over hardwood – is almost always on hand. Durham says its trademark is a moist, firm yet buttery texture. It's also available double-smoked or smoked over pecan wood.

His second-best selling delectable is the Thai Smoked Salmon – cured with ginger, coriander, lemon grass, pepper, then dusted with hand-ground, freshly toasted Sichuan peppercorns. "More aromatic than spicy."

This writer's favorites include the warm-smoked miso/mirin/tamari salmon -- dense, moist and flaky with a sweet-salty taste --. and North Country gravlax-cured salmon, a traditional Scandinavian style, marinated with allspice, white pepper, crushed juniper berries, bunches of fresh dill and very lightly smoked over hardwood.

What's in store for the new year at Tracklements? Ever detailed, Durham rejoices in a recent discovery:

"I found a new source for sable (black cod) for the holidays. I can get larger fillets – 2-to-4 pounds each. Normally they're much smaller. Sable fat permeates the flesh, so it takes a dry cure. Smaller pieces are not as well-developed in terms of oil. When you smoke it at 150-155 degrees F., it's almost like poaching the fish internally," he said.

Doesn't sound like a guy raised on frozen fish sticks does it?


Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Ken Fischer.

Photos:

T.R. Durham Cutting Into a Fish?-Kerrytown Ann Arbor

Durham Impulse Buys-
Kerrytown Ann Arbor

Salmon Detail-
Kerrytown Ann Arbor

The Final Product-
Kerrytown Ann Arbor

T.R. Shows Off His Catch-
Kerrytown Ann Arbor

Tracklements-
Kerrytown Ann Arbor

T.R. Slicing Some Fish-
Kerrytown Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  C'mon...All of you know Dave Lewinski loves to fish.  But he will not eat what he catches.
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