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6 february 2014

I talked a bit about salmon as food when I reviewed Peter Coates's Salmon from the Reaktion Animal series a few years ago; I'll try not to cover the same ground in commenting on Nicolaas Mink's more recent Salmon for Reaktion Edible.

Both books include quite a bit about the edible salmon, but Mink's Edible book raises an interesting theme of special pertinence to the big fish: the idea that the history of a foodstuff is above all the history of its preservation. There are few foods that people eat primarily in fresh condition: even the wonder of the 21st century, washed bag salad, is sealed in plastics that prevent it from arriving at the table in the wilted condition that supermarket lettuce tended to exhibit even a decade ago. Meats, grains, fruit, and vegetables all offer lessons in how elaborate the culture of preservation can become – fish perhaps most of all, and salmon perhaps most of all fish.

Salmon pose the problem of running in brief seasons in numbers far greater than even large human populations can eat, and then disappearing for the rest of the year. Around the Northern Hemisphere, people have historically dealt with the glut-and-famine cycle of salmon by using just about every known food preservative. Salting, smoking, brining, drying, burying, fermenting, jerky-ing, freezing and freeze-drying (an ancient technique), sugaring, spicing. The can, as Mink argues, was the greatest of all salmon preservers, radically altering the cultures of the Pacific Northwest and the diets of inlanders.

Ironically, canned salmon is a niche item nowadays. (Of course I bought a can after reading Salmon and intend to turn it into patties tonight out of sheer nostalgia.) From over 95% of the world's salmon arriving in kitchens in tins in the mid-20th century, over 90% arrives fresh today.

Of course, even "fresh" means preserved: frozen, of course (to be thawed and then cooked or eaten raw), but also cleaned and iced so that it can be sent as air freight from salmon river or pen direct to upscale market or restaurant. You don't just eat the fish straight out of the sea, unless you're on the Pacific and haul in your own. Technology intervenes at every stage to forestall spoilage.

Mink presents an interesting overview of the culinary and cultural struggle over various kinds of salmon. An app now resident on my phone thanks to a friend's advice, for instance, says to AVOID farm-raised Atlantic salmon and go for the BEST OPTION, wild-caught Pacific fish caught via small-scale methods. Proponents of farm fisheries as a solution to world hunger problems consider ecological concerns as just a form of snobbery, befitting suburban foodies with iPhones. But vast monocultural food factories are rarely a good idea in the long run, while slow exploitation of a wild population may be sustainable indefinitely. But expensive – and not necessarily any better-tasting unless you are somewhat suggestible.

Mink reprints a lot of old-timey recipes, including his grandmother's for salmon patties (ketchup, though? no thanks). The one that really caught my eye (literally, because Mink prints an enticing photo of the preparation) is a more contemporary one for "Fennel-Encrusted Coho Salmon with Orange Salsa." I don't know if I can get Coho, but I can get something to substitute, thanks to preservation methods undreamt of by our grandmothers. There's a fish swimming somewhere out there right now with a fennel crust in his future. I apologize in advance.

UPDATE 4.13.14: Sure enough, I got around today to fixing that fennel-encrusted salmon – and was even able to use Alaskan wild-caught coho, thanks to my wonderful local sourcers. It's a luscious recipe, soft fish inside crunchy fennel topped with a salsa that mixes orange and red onion with oil, garlic, cilantro, and lime juice. The famous maxim that you should reject food your grandparents wouldn't have recognized occurred to me while I was making the dish. Salmon was familiar enough to my Grandmas, and fennel was at least something that came embedded in Italian sausage, but I can't imagine either of them mixing raw onion and chopped orange to make a relish. Strange that such a hideous violation of food compatibility should, half a century later, become a simple sauce.

Mink, Nicolaas. Salmon: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.