By: Michael Rogers
Consider if you will the meager salmon patty. I fell in love with these as a child growing up in the rural South. Like many Southerners, I never stopped to consider the origins of this particular dish or exactly why something like canned salmon, made into a patty and fried, became a staple in households all across the South. In reflection now, none of my friends from the American West or the Northeast ever ate salmon patties.
That dietary niche was perhaps filled with another food or the region didn’t have the catalyst necessary that fostered wide acceptance. I do know as a child in the 1970’s, my mom and virtually every mom I knew made a meal of salmon patties, soup beans, and corn bread at least once a month. For that matter, salmon patties were served on a semi-regular basis at my elementary school.While the history of the fish cake pretty much occurs the entire world over from the salted cod and mashed potato version of Newfoundland and Labrador, to the Danish frikadeller, to the satsumaage of Japan; we’re talking a very specific preparation made with canned pink salmon, some form of binder and an egg that seems popular only in the American South. Sometimes these are called salmon croquettes, but I wonder if the name was added to make a simple dish seem a bit more exotic than it really is. The history of the salmon patty goes back to the early twentieth century into the era of the Great Depression. While every region of the United States was hit hard in the Great Depression (1929- 1930s), perhaps the hardest hit was the American South. Even through the World War I era and the roaring Twenties, pellagra epidemics effecting millions had swept through the south due to the prevalence of ground corn in the local diet that led to the condition caused by a vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency. Linguist Sterling Eisiminger even traces the origin of the Southern pejorative term “redneck” to pellagra sufferers with bright red lesions on their skin, the first symptom caused by the disease. Food science was in its infancy back then, and it wasn’t until 1926 that Dr. Joseph Goldberger established that a diet deficient in meat, milk and eggs and heavy on corn meal was the most definitive factor for developing pellagra. And that diet was most prevalent among poor, rural folks in the American South and the toll of the Great Depression was making more of them every day. The U.S. government took action to prevent widespread famine in the economically strapped regions of the country. Enter the salmon. Experiments with canning salmon or other fish to preserve them had been going on since the Napoleonic wars and the first industrial scale salmon cannery was built on a barge in the Sacramento River in 1864. By 1883, salmon canning was the major industry on the Columbia River and by the early 1900s Alaska was the major player in the developing canned salmon market. For the first time, it was possible to bring vast quantities of preserved ocean fish to inland areas at a low cost. Fostered by heavy subsidies by the U.S. government, a can of salmon in the 1920s cost less than a nickel. Even today, a can of salmon in my hometown can be found for less than three bucks; which seems remarkable given the logistical string required to bring a chunk of Alaska seafood to the Appalachians. With an ongoing pellagra epidemic and the suddenly gloomy prospect of tens of millions of Americans developing nutritional deficiencies and debilitating diseases, the U.S. Departments of Health and Agriculture went to work figuring out just how to feed Americans a diet that was nutritionally complete (well, at least as far as their understanding of nutrition went) for the lowest possible cost. It was determined that a can of salmon, mixed with a portion of flour, bread crumbs, or crushed crackers and a single egg contained enough protein to unlock the niacin in the ground corn and ward off pellagra for a family of four when served once a week. The southern staple of salmon patties, corn bread, and soup beans was included in many Depression Era cookbooks and government pamphlets encouraging housewives to cook nutritionally complete (if bland) foods and such menus went into schools, hospitals, prisons and other public institutions. It was said the filling meal could feed a family of four in 1935 for less than a quarter. Even in 2017, the ingredients cost less than $7. We will never know exactly how many people from the era managed to ward off starvation and disease through a steady diet of these foods, but it is certainly in the multiple millions. It’s hard to imagine such a nutritional famine in our modern America, but it happened just a century ago. Those old cookbooks and pamphlets make for some interesting study and the menus they prescribe seem incredibly awful by today’s culinary standards. Most of the recipes and many of the food science products developed then have blessedly gone the way of the dodo. Salmon patties are one of the rare exceptions. In the day, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt ordered the White House dining room to adopt the dietary recommendations pushed forth by the USDA and while “Milkorno Chop Suey” never made it to President Roosevelt’s plate; the meager salmon patty did frequently. Salmon patties were also a favorite of celebrated American author William Faulkner who was something of a local legend in Oxford, Mississippi for his consumption of liquor and salmon patties. Born of necessity, the salmon patty has clung to the cuisine of the South ever since, even if Southerners have a proclivity to pronounce the ‘L’ in salmon. Now rooted firmly in the 49th state and an ardent connoisseur of salmon, I can no longer bring myself to eat a pink salmon, especially from a can. A perfectly acceptable (and vastly superior in my opinion) substitute is to use some home canned or lightly smoked King Salmon in lieu of the commercially canned stuff. While I like spicy food, Depression Era cooking was necessarily bland with few seasonings beyond salt and pepper. To prepare these you’ll need the following: 1 can or 14 oz. of cooked salmon (applewood smoked King is outstanding!) ¼ cup of finely diced onion ½ cup of binder (cornmeal, flour, panko, bread crumbs or crushed saltine crackers) 1 egg Salt and pepper to taste ¼ cup of oil for frying. Depression era cooks would have used lard, bacon fat or Crisco (another food science product of the era)…olive oil works just as well. Combine all ingredients in a bowl until well mixed and portion out into patties- about 6. Place patties into a hot skillet of oil and fry until golden brown on both sides. Don’t monkey about with the patties until they are almost done on that side or they can fall apart in the pan (not good). Serve by themselves or as a complete meal with soup beans (pinto beans cooked long and slow with seasoned pork until a thickened soup forms), cornbread, and green onions for the full Depression Era South experience. Salmon patties sopping up the bean broth is one of the better parts of the meal, if you’re from there, it/s a nostalgic taste from childhood. While most Alaskans love their salmon to the point it’s emblematic of Alaska itself, there’s a whole other region that appreciates the Alaska salmon on a completely different level. For other Alaskan salmon recipes check out Alaskan Salmon Patties, Salmon Chowder, and our easy Grilling Board Salmon!
I am a native New Englander, born and raised in MA, now live in CT. I grew up with Salmon and other fish cakes on a routine basis. We are Catholic, so fish on Friday was a common theme. Many of my friends also found fish cakes on their dinner plates. Often we serve them with New England baked beans but any side will do. Just saying-it’s not just a Southern thing.
Really enjoyed this article. My grandmother made these often when I was growing up. She always served them with a very simple “spaghetti” which was really just canned tomatoes, onions and spaghetti noodles. She grew up during the Depression in the Mississippi Delta and yes, she pronounced the “l” in “salmon.” I could never convince her that was incorrect!
i’m from Alabama and i always wondered, after i got older, why everyone ate salmon patties, we ate them at least once a week, sometimes more. my mother was single most of my childhood and she bought Double Q Salmon and pinto beans like nothing else. i would put ketchup on them when i was young. loved them then and i still make them, but with just Double Q, oatmeal and an egg, pan fried in canola or olive oil. after i cook them i either pour pinto beans all over them or make them with roasted garlic red potatoes drizzling both with balsamic vinegar.
My grandparents were from Portage in Western Pa, and my grandmother made these forever. I always thought it was a Catholic recipe because she made them every Friday. My father who was born in 1945 grew up on them. But when he moved to Philadelphia no one there had heard of them. My grandmother added Worsteshire sauce to them. I made them like that too. It ads nice flavor. My kids now get them every Friday during Lent.
I was looking for history on salmon patties,because I needed a food I grew up on as part of a project for school. My mom taught me to make them when I was a kid. I’m from Missouri, and my mom was raised in a fairly poor, rural part of the state. They also seemed to have beans and corn bread at most meals, except breakfast. Thanks for giving me a place to start.
I’ve always loved salmon patties! I usually get raised eyebrows when I eat them though because I love to put pancake syrup on them! It’s that “salty/sweet” thing!
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and the salmon patty was a constant for my whole childhood. (So were grits, for that matter.) My only southern relatives were my non-Southern great uncle, his definitely Southern wife, and their children and grandchildren. It never occurred to me to ask if these were things we just adopted from my great aunt (the only people who would know for sure are long gone), but I wonder now.
Being from Western PA, of course, salmon patties were served with a vegetable (green beans were the usual for us), and macaroni and cheese. (Western PA has a high Catholic population, and many of us ended up with a fish-and-mac-on-Fridays habit whether we were Catholic or not. My entire childhood, in more than one school district, the Friday school lunch menu was always your choice of either pizza, or fish and macaroni and cheese. All year, not just Lent.)
these were a favorite meal in our household – in Chattanooga ,Tn in the 50’s and 60’s – just had them last week – still like them – i like to try food from different areas – however nothing beats southern cooking -
I’ve just found you and I adore you and your style of writing! You pulled me in with your title for this post; you see, I live in the South (East Tennessee!) and never realized poorer people across the entire US weren’t necessarily as fond of our beloved patties as we are! I’m not overly fond of fish/seafood. But you can bet salmon “croquets” have long been one if the few! I look forward to getting to read your posts regularly and continue to dream of the day I will finally get to visit Alaska, your second Home, which I suspect you chose with a willing and opened heart.