Salmon by Mark Kurlansky

Salmon Mark Kurlansky

What’s the USP? From the man who brought you Cod, a book about cod, now comes Salmon, a book about the history of the social revolutionary organisation Situationist International. I’m kidding. It’s about salmon.

Who’s the author? Mark Kurlansky is an award winning American writer, journalist and sometime playwright who, according to his website, has also worked as ‘a commerical fisherman, a dock worker, a paralegal, a cook, and a pastry chef’.

Is it good bedtime reading? Salmon is not a cookbook but a work of narrative non-fiction that charts the past, present and future of one of the world’s most popular  fish and ‘a barometer for the health of our planet’. Apart from a few recipes the author has collected along the way (see below for more details), it’s all bedtime reading.

Although Kurlansky does have a cookbook to his name (International Night), when writing about food, Kurlansky more usually views it through the lens of a single subject like Milk, or a person such as Clarence Birdseye (Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man) rather than basing his work around recipes.  He has also written numerous books on other subjects including Ready for a Brand New Beat:  How “Dancing in the Street” became an anthem for a changing America and Paper:  Paging Through History and so thankfully, he is not a food writer, per se. We are therefore spared the arch, sub-poetic simpering romanticism that can sometimes besmirch the genre.

Instead Salmon is a factual, historical and journalistic exploration of the subject. From the first page of the book’s prologue, where the author travels to Alaska and goes onboard two very different salmon fishing vessels, Kurlansky uses his not inconsiderable story telling talents to hook the reader like a…(well, you know know what like) and doesn’t let them off until a pensive epilogue ‘It concerns us’ where he contemplates the environmental impact of economic development and asks the question ‘What would it mean to lose a salmon species…that is intimately engaged in the life cycle of tiny insects like a stonefly or large mammals like a brown bear…How many species do we lose when we lost a salmon? And how many others do we lost from losing those.’

It’s not all doom and gloom. Kurlansky wonders at ‘the great mystery’ of the salmon’s return to its place of birth. Anadromous species of salmon are born in rivers then migrate to the sea to mature. They then return to the river to spawn. But not just any old river; they return to their place of birth. ‘The salmon not only finds that river after travelling thousands of miles away, but it returns to the very same stretch of gravel in that same crook in the same stream where it was born some years before’.

That makes sense doesn’t it? You’ve had your wild years out at sea; now it’s time to settle down and have a family. You’re bound to want to go back to the setting for the idyllic days of your youth and where there’s a nice big lake for the kids to swim around in. Except we’re talking about a fish, an animal with a brain approximately one fifteenth the size of a bird. It’s absolutely astonishing. Can Kurlansky explain this jaw dropping phenomenon? You’ll just have to buy the book to find out.  

What about the recipes? Think of them as a nice little side dish to the firm pink flesh of the book; it would be a mistake to buy Salmon expecting to get a lot of new dishes to try out and the recipes seem to have been included more for illustrative purposes than anything else. So we get the beer bread that Hannelore Olsen bakes for her husband Ole and his salmon fishing crew for dinner, and the salmon chowder prepared for Kurlansky by salmon fisherwoman Thea Thomas during a night at sea.

There’s also things like Robert May’s recipe from 1660 for pickled salmon ‘to keep all the year’ (and then throw away because, you know, it’s fish you boiled in wine and vinegar 12 months ago), and salmon al verde written in 1913 by novelist Emilia Pardo Bazán which has stood the test of time about as well as Robert May’s manky old seafood.

There’s a recipe for poached salmon which Kurlansky suggests was served to Jackie Kennedy in the White House, but it’s not clear if it’s the authors version or that of René Verdon, the Kennedy’s private chef  (a White House dinner menu from the time re-produced in the book simply lists ‘medaillons de saumon ‘ which isn’t a lot to go on).

Elsewhere, there’s culinary curiosities including Swedish salmon pudding and Hawaiian lomilomi (flaked salted salmon rubbed together with peeled and de-seeded tomatoes and chopped green onions. It’s the most popular salmon dish in Hawaii. They also love Spam. Let’s all take a culinary holiday in Hawaii after lockdown shall we?). Let’s just say its a curate’s egg of a recipe collection.

Should I buy it? An entire book about one variety of fish might, on the face of it,  appear to have niche appeal. But Kurlansky is such as skilled writer and his scope so wide ranging that anyone interested in food, history, the environment and sustainability will be fascinated.

Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of a Common Fate
£18.99, Oneworld

Shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2020. See all the shortlisted books here.
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