Monday, October 30, 2006

Eating. smoked salmon.

My earliest memory of smoked salmon comes from a visit to New York. A plate of lox, at the Russian Tea Room, thin sunset-pink slices fanned out over a plate, dotted with the sharp briny tang of capers, the crisp bite of red onion, the dark softness of pumpernickel bread. I would have been about five years old. (There would have been a crème russe for dessert, as there always was). On those New York trips, breakfast would be a bagel with cream cheese and lox from the deli downstairs, onion or poppyseed or sesame or garlic or plain. Or all of the above. (Once, when it was just my grandfather and I, he had them put smoked salmon and cream cheese on a buttered blueberry bagel. It was surprisingly good, but weird, characteristic of nearly everything I ate when I visited my grandfather, including the spaghetti tossed with soy sauce and olive oil). The smoked salmon was imported from the Scandinavian countries, or from the waters off the Atlantic coast, sliced by hand off the long sides of fish that gleamed behind glass counters. Soon after, we moved west from our St. Louis home and landed on the opposite coast, home to another, entirely different school of fish. So to speak.

On the East coast, the salmon in the morning bagel was pale pink, the color that florists mean when they suggest salmon-colored roses for your bridesmaids' bouquets. On the West coast, the Pacific salmon, the wild sockeyes and kings caught in those local waters or up in Alaska, a brighter orange instead of soft pink, a more intense color and flavor. And there is kippered salmon, smoked and preserved, not the silky slices of lox that drape like heavy fabric over thin squares of pumpernickel; it is firmer and drier and saltier. When sliced the flesh flakes apart beneath the pressure of your fork. This is how the Indians (sorry, Native Americans) of the Pacific Northwest preserved their salmon, or so we learned during elementary school field trips to the salmon hatcheries (where we learned about the mating and migration habits of salmon) and natural history museums (with their dioramas of native life and recreations of log cabins). The wild salmon, cleaned and split and tied to a cedar plank with leather thongs and smoked over fires built in the longhouses built of cedar logs. Or something like that.

It is hard to say which kind I like better, lox or kippered. The former I sandwich between toasted English muffins or bagels slathered with cream cheese or mascarpone; the latter I eat as is, sliced into thick chunks, salty and smoky and absolutely addictive. Smoked salmon makes me think of Sunday brunch, of scrambled eggs and toasted bagels and plates of smoked salmon and tubs of cream cheese and glasses of orange juice. It is something of a special treat, more common than, say, caviar or foie gras, but less ordinary than ham or bacon. I think of it as a cheap luxury, like a tube of expensive hand cream that is nevertheless cheaper than the face cream which costs as much as a handbag. An affordable luxury, then. Not for every day, but rather something to look forward to once a week.

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