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29 august 2011

When I was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, "salmon" was something that came in cans and was consumed in the form of patties. Salmon was our favorite Friday meal. There were two kinds of Catholic families in the Midwest back then: fish-finger families and salmon-patty families. The dividing line was probably somewhere at the city limits: suburban Catholics would own a deep freeze, and thus a storage place for fingers. We had a refrigerator with a frost-encrusted ice-cube compartment. No fish could live long in there.

Salmon patties and tunafish salad, those great staples of my upbringing, were based on two of the most majestic creatures of the ocean, reduced to the form of tin cans with silly labels. Like other entries in the Reaktion Animal series, Peter Coates's Salmon tries to account for every phase in the continuum of man's interaction with animal. From the staff of life for riverine "salmon cultures" like the Indians of the Pacific Northwest to mashed by urban Catholics with egg-and-breadcrumbs and fried on a castiron pan, the salmon has made an incredible cultural journey to go along with its fabled anadromous lifestyle.

Servants and apprentices in early modern Britain were forbidden to eat salmon more than a few days a week. Not because salmon was scarce or their employers greedy; quite the opposite. Spent, spawned-out salmon were the cheapest food available, and the apprentices themselves were protected by law and custom from being malnourished with Godawful stinking fish. Feast and famine have characterized salmon culture, from primitive gathering to modern fishfarming. Natural populations of salmon tend to fluctuate, and human interventions send the fluctuations into unstable boom-and-bust cycles.

As with so many other animals, salmon are most threatened by habitat loss. Damming of rivers has cost the fish more ground than commercial or sport fishing. Many other game fish can be conserved and sustained by government programs. Salmon are raised in hatcheries to stock rivers, too, but the down-and-up movement essential to their life cycle has been blocked by non-fish-related development.

Coates is especially good on how salmon have functioned as cultural capital. As the Western working class (my ancestors included) came to rely on tinned salmon as a staple food, wild-caught salmon (fresh or smoked) became a jealously protected aristocratic luxury. Given the relative abundance of early modern salmon, this jealousy provoked massive disobedience. "Leistering" for salmon – artifically-lit nighttime poaching – became an institution among the poor, even a badge of fun-loving honor among the not-so-poor. As with oysters and sturgeon, the same food came to mean ultra-luxury and infra-subsistence.

Today's supermarket salmon are most likely to be currently or previously frozen, and to have been raised in the floating farms of Scotland and other aquaculture countries. (Salmon farming, as Coates describes, raises a whole host of environmental and nutritional problems.) but canned salmon is still on the shelf, appealing to vestigial tastes like mine.

I've gotten used to steaming or broiling the occasional farm fillet, but for me the patty is still the ultimate salmon-delivery vehicle. My mother would extract the bones, add just eggs, breadcrumb, and salt, and eat them with white sauce. I mash up the bones (also delicious alone as tiny calcium snacks), add egg, breadcrumb, and fines herbes – and then fry in oil, just like we always did. It's a great Middle American comfort food.

Coates, Peter. Salmon. London: Reaktion, 2006.