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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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03.13.08

Salmon

Food History


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At one time, lobster was considered a pest, caviar was given away free in American bars, and salmon was so cheap that Charles Dickens wrote that salmon and poverty went together. In fact, only a few centuries ago, employee contracts contained clauses limiting the number of times workers could be fed salmon. Things change.

Once, the rivers of Europe swarmed with salmon. The East Coast of North America had abundant salmon every breeding season. When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Northwest, they actually had to force their way through the fish, the numbers in the rivers were so great. But a bunch of stuff happened. Pollution is probably the number one problem, because salmon can’t breed in water that isn’t clean and clear. Dams are a problem on some rivers, unless they have fish ladders—and in areas where seals are abundant, fish ladders become a liability, as the seals have figured out that they can just sit on the ladders and wait to gorge on salmon. When scientists began tagging and tracking salmon, to determine where they went when they left the rivers, they inadvertently contributed to the problem, because suddenly everyone knew where salmon went when they left the rivers, and if you know where a fish is, you’re going to go there on your next fishing trip. So now, salmon are either rare or protected or farmed, and thus are no longer the protein you force on your servants.

Actually, the history of salmon is kind of book-ended by the fish’s being a luxury. Scarcity has made it costly today; inaccessibility made it a luxury in ancient Rome. Salmon were abundant pretty much anywhere you found cold water in the Northern Hemisphere, but that would rule out the Mediterranean. The only ancient Romans who ate salmon had to be rich enough to have it transported across Gaul, either live in lead-lined cistern carts or dead but packed in ice and snow. Other than as this rare epicurean delight, salmon does not figure in the culinary history of the classical world.

But it was always big up north, from the rivers of Gaul to the firths of Scotland. When Eric the Red started wandering, salmon, a Norse staple, was one of the things he noted in the lands he visited. In fact, the first fish mentioned in American history is the salmon; Eric the Red reported that the Vikings encountered salmon larger than any they’d seen before in the waters of the newly found coast.

On the opposite side of that same great continent, the Indians of the Pacific Northwest relied on salmon for most of their history. It was so important that it entered the myths, traditions, and religion of the tribes along the Pacific Coast. Salmon was smoked, roasted, and cooked pegged to alder wood planks—a method of preparation still practiced today, even in many of the Northwest’s finest restaurants (the alder wood-cooked salmon at Vancouver’s The Salmon House on the Hill is simply splendid). In addition to catching and cooking salmon, the tribes in this region also classified it. They identified “five tribes” of salmon, and when German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller got around to identifying the salmon of the Pacific in 1741, he agreed that there were, in fact, five species of salmon. (There are, in fact, six species of Pacific salmon, but the one additional species not included among the “five tribes” is the Japanese salmon, which would never have been seen by Native Americans.)

Traditionally, Pacific salmon were rated below Atlantic salmon for flavor, but nowadays, Pacific salmon rules, because pretty much everything we see in the U.S. labeled as Atlantic salmon is farm raised, so it’s okay, but it’s not as good as wild. However, despite the increased interest in fresh fish, the most common ways of preparing salmon today employ time-tested methods of curing and/or smoking. Curing can be with salt, sugar, or brine. Smoking can be hot or cold. Originally, lox were cured but not smoked, nova salmon was brined and cold smoked, but today, what is called “nova lox” is cured and cold smoked, kind of like nova salmon, only saltier. There are no legal definitions of what is “real” lox vs. nova salmon vs. “nova lox,” so you only know what you’re getting if you ask (or read labels). Hot-smoked salmon is smoked at a high enough temperature that it cooks the fish. (True barbecue is a type of hot smoking.) The heat kills microbes, so curing is not necessary. Generally speaking, hot smoking takes less time than cold smoking. And if you have a smoker (which I do), you appreciate this difference!

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