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When I was young and the world was warmly lit by wood fire and the ponies were fluffy in their soft winter coats and the seasons turned from wet and cold to colder and wetter, we feasted like kings on the King of the Ocean—the Chinook Salmon.
My grandfather was an expert fisherman. He would fly fish along the Elwha River, or take a small wooden boat out into the choppy Puget Sound. Every year or so he and my grandmother would take the long drive up to Alaska to visit his brother. Jasper and Paul would fish while Margaret puttered around in town. She used to tidy Paul’s ramshackle bachelor’s house until he glared at her once, his deep displeasure given only indirect and silent expression.
My grandfather built a small smoke house on the back of their property, and every family gathering in my memory featured smoked salmon. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve: none of these feel like holidays to me without smoked salmon.
And not just any old salmon, you understand.
The Coho, with her luscious flakes of deep red; the Pink, usually canned and then shipped out of Alaska, perfect with white bread, the sandwich slightly squishy; the Sockeye, with her oily, orange flesh, pleasantly reeking, the fishiest of the lot.
And, of course, the Royal One himself, My Gracious Lord Chinook—massive, perfect, delicately delicious and gloriously fresh. To freeze a King Salmon is to do felonious harm. One simply does not do it. Or if one does, then one is a fool, a nincompoop, an East Coaster.
I message an academic friend in Australia:
I’m writing something about salmon. Do you have salmon in Australia?
Of course! Especially Tasmanian salmon
Yeah, you should meet my friend who writes about herring
Why is that funny?
Um bc herring are inherently funny duh. What does Tasmanian salmon taste like?
Like any other salmon, nothing special
You are no help. ALL THE SALMONS ARE DIFFERENT
These days most salmon consumed in the US is Atlantic, possibly of the landlocked variety (introduced into the Great Lakes), and most probably farm-raised.
It is a dreary fish—bland but firm-fleshed, and thus easily shipped to any variety of grocery stories and mid-range restaurants. It is also the salmon I eat most often now, having been in exile from the land of my ancestors lo these twenty-two years, give or take.
In the bleak mid-winter, in rural Western Pennsylvania, in a chain restaurant, I should not be able to order a Salmon Caesar Salad. Or, if I am offered the option of it, I should not order it—not only because of the egregious violation of my local foods commitments, but also because it is sure to be a disappointment.
And yet, not miraculously, here I am in a faux-English pub, reasonably satisfied with my sub-par fish salad. Because sub-par salmon is still better than no salmon.
Your eyebrows are raised, I know.
But look, look, what I am saying is that FISH MATTERS. Like, existentially. Metaphorically and mystically and mythically. Philosophically and ethically.
Among the Native Peoples on whose land my ancestors settled, the Salmon is revered. The Quinault, the Hoh, the Quileute, the Makah, the S’Klallam, the Skokomish—they depended for their survival on this animal, this god.
He gives himself up to be eaten, the Salmon. This is my body. Eat of my flesh. He symbolizes renewal and abundance and endurance. He sits in honor at the top of the totem.
So. When the urge for real fish is too much to resist, I make the 60-mile pilgrimage to Pittsburgh, to Penn Fish Co., to be exact. There I cast my practiced and hungry eye over the sleek salmon bodies, heads still attached, thank goodness. I rest in the security that these beasts are wild, wrestled honorably from whitewater rivers and cold oceans. I lift my chin and inhale the smoke from the in-house smoker. I load up on both cold- and hot-smoked salmon, to each its purpose and use.
“That’s a nice piece of fish,” I laconically note. The fishmonger nods once—master craftsman, expert in Things from the Deep, priest of these sacred arts.
It’s Lent now, of course.
But Easter awaits, and I plan to feast properly–just like my ancestors
Because Salmon is Life.