March 10, 2010

Here's a true f sh story

— or most people, a brilliant fireworks display is the must-have accompaniment to the Fourth of July.

For Brenda and Tanya Athanus, it's a family dinner of salmon and peas.

Even after working a 14-hour day at the Green Spot, their specialty foods store in Belgrade Lakes, the weary sisters still make time on the Fourth for the salmon-and-peas tradition they remember from their childhoods.

Tanya grills the salmon while her boyfriend shells the peas. Brenda makes the white sauce for the salmon, prepares the new potatoes, and rustles up some strawberry shortcake for dessert.

''To me, it's no different than eating turkey on Thanksgiving,'' Tanya Athanus said.

Salmon and peas on Independence Day is an old Maine tradition that hearkens back to the days when wild salmon were plentiful in the state's rivers and peas were a tasty summer holdover of the traditional English diet. Old-time Mainers didn't plan to celebrate the Fourth this way; wild-caught salmon and home-grown peas were simply the foods that were available at this time of year after a long, hard winter and cool spring.

''The time to plant peas is as soon as you can plant them in the spring, so the traditional crop was a crop that you planted early and started having sometime in July,'' said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. ''Over time, it turned out that that coincided with two other things. One is the salmon migration, so salmon would be coming up Maine rivers to spawn, and after 150 years or so, it also coincided with the Fourth of July celebration.''

Food historian Sandra Oliver, however, is skeptical that the salmon-and-peas meal goes back much further than the mid-1800s.

In the early 1800s, all of Maine was going through a cooler climactic period, and in some years, there was potential for frost all year 'round. The year 1816 brought snow in June and a killing frost in July, courtesy of a volcanic eruption halfway around the world.

It's hard to believe, Oliver says, that Mainers growing peas under those conditions could have had a harvest by July 4.

Certainly by the late 1800s, salmon and peas was a notable meal. A quick online search reveals that in 1891, Dr. Bigelow T. Sanborn, superintendent of the Maine Insane Asylum in Augusta (now known by the more politically correct name Riverview Psychiatric Center) wrote in his diary: ''All had salmon and peas on the 4th.''

Oliver's ''educated guess'' is that the tradition popped up in the mid-1800s and flourished into the mid-20th century, when salmon stocks started to decline.

''The salmon stocks in Penobscot Bay were fading in the 1940s,'' Oliver said. ''They were just about gone. So if someone had a salmon, it would have been a special thing.''

The Athanus sisters, both in their 50s, grew up in Augusta. They still recall their mother buying a peck of peas from grower Frank Farnham every year on the way to their summer house in Belgrade. They bought their salmon from a local fish market.

''We always got a whole salmon, and my mother always poached it in her little Julia Child French poacher,'' said Brenda Athanus. ''And then we had our peas, and new potatoes. She'd serve that with chives from her garden and homemade butter from her neighbor. We used to have quite a feast.''

The salmon they bought was wild-caught, Tanya Athanus noted, and lots of families looked forward to this special meal.


''You know, back then, it wasn't raised salmon,'' Tanya Athanus said. ''We used to get wild salmon, and you hoped that you could get enough, and that they really were going to be there. I think they even would get some from Canada. It was not as easy as it is now. That's why it was made to be so special, because the salmon was better.''

The ''real standard New England way'' of eating salmon was to poach it and serve it with an egg sauce, Oliver said.

''The early term was called boiling, but they didn't literally boil it,'' she said. ''They cook it in water, and the egg sauce was melted butter with hard-boiled eggs chopped up in it.''

Today, the Athanus sisters grill salmon fillets for a more modern twist, and Brenda makes a Bearnaise or Hollandaise sauce to accompany it. If she's really tired after working at her store all day, she'll just make a simple white sauce, perhaps adding mustard, tomato paste or an herb purée for more color and flavor.

She prepares the peas by covering them with water, then adding butter or a teaspoon of sugar or local honey. (''I sweeten them just a smidgen.'') After the peas come to a boil, she immediately removes them from the heat and serves.

The days of large commercial pea growers such as Frank Farnham in Belgrade and Harry Prout in Bowdoinham, who hired local teenagers to harvest his pea crop, are over. Peas are mostly a garden crop now because of the labor costs of harvesting them, Libby said, but there is still an expectation that at least some peas should be ready by the Fourth of July.

''There is a serious competition among gardeners, because if you have peas for the Fourth of July, it means you were on top of things in the spring and you got your garden planted on time,'' Libby said. ''So there is a friendly rivalry that goes with that as well. And the reality is, if you don't plant peas early, they don't do well, because in the heat of summer, pea plants aren't happy. They're a cool-season crop.''

The usual planting time is the third or fourth week of April, around Patriot's Day.

Libby also grew up having salmon and peas on the Fourth. In his household, it was usually a comfort food known regionally as ''salmon pea wiggle.'' It's made with canned salmon and a milk sauce, served on top of potatoes.


Among commercial growers, there is still a strong desire to have peas ready to harvest by the Fourth, because that's when the demand really picks up, says David Handley, a vegetable and small-fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.

''Sadly, for many, this is wishful thinking, especially if we have a late, cool, wet or otherwise less-than-perfect spring,'' Handley wrote in an e-mail. ''But there are those in southern Maine who have farms with sandy soils that warm up quickly in the spring that can pull it off.''

Well, maybe not this year. Weeks of rain have slowed the growth of peas at Meadowood Farm in Yarmouth.

''We're going to have less this year than we normally do on the Fourth,'' said Sarah Bostick, who sells the farm's organically-grown peas at the Portland Farmers' Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Bostick says she had never heard of the salmon-and-peas tradition before moving to Maine about a decade ago, but every year, customers show up at the farmers' market looking for peas and dill to use in their annual July 4 meal.

''Most people say they steam the peas in their pods,'' Bostick said. ''They do the sugar-snap peas.''

If you'd rather have someone else do the cooking, there are local restaurants that have salmon and peas on their menus. Earl Morse, the new chef at Eve's at the Garden, located in the Portland Harbor Hotel, has come up with a special salmon-and-peas dish he plans to offer on the Fourth: Atlantic salmon nestled on baby spinach with Maine pea purée and turned buttered potatoes.

Chef Larry Matthews Jr. at Back Bay Grill in Portland is serving Scottish salmon, hand-rolled fettucine, chanterelles, English peas and pea purée.

The Athanus sisters lament that even though farm-raised salmon is now widely available for the home cook, the Maine salmon-and-peas dinner still appears to be on the wane. Folks who want seafood at their July Fourth picnics tend to opt for lobster because it's much easier, Brenda Athanus says.

She and Tanya make it a point every year to talk up salmon and peas with their younger customers and stock at least five different kinds of salmon around the Fourth to encourage them to try it, ''because it's a tradition, and traditions should not die.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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