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)
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.