In the 1970s, Maine’s aquaculture industry began putting fresh, inexpensive salmon on the dinner table of non-anglers and catch-and-release types, and salmon farmers accomplished this feat at an attractive price – often less expensive than haddock.

Folks like me would catch a big salmon or trout, release it, and reward ourselves with a farm-raised Atlantic-salmon – the best of two worlds. We could catch the same trophy another day and still eat fresh fish.

Aquaculture salmon strengthened the custom of fresh salmon and peas for July 4th.

In the 1920s and Depression, according to Grandmother Allen, recently poached venison served as the main dish on July 4th. While living in Aroostook County around Glenwood and Wytopitlock Lake, she said that the traditional July 4th dinner menu seldom included salmon, but fresh garden peas and boiled potatoes rounded out the menu.

Back then, fresh store-bought salmon cost too much, and lots of residents in The County lived so far from salmon lakes and rivers that it proved difficult to catch a landlock for July 4th. That made fresh deer meat a welcome substitute. I said “deer meat,” too, because native Mainers often use this term instead of “venison.”

Grandmother Allen said that during the 1920s, poaching was quite open in Aroostook, so rural communities quietly shared a deer with neighbors. In those hardscrabble times in northern Maine, folks appreciated free fresh meat after a winter and spring of salt pork – fried or boiled.

In the Depression, according to my mother, lots of central Maine residents ate fried salt pork almost daily, or they boiled a chunk of it in home-canned stringed beans or a pot of dandelion greens. She also said that wild game or warm-water fish species also proved common on the Fourth.

This hard Aroostook life in the Depression influenced my Grandfather Allen to move his family to central Maine. My father was an eighth-grader then, and according to him, July 4th dinners in Augusta took a more traditional twist – canned Alaskan salmon, fresh or canned peas and boiled potatoes.

After World War II, my family ate canned salmon for July 4th, often placed on lettuce and complemented with fresh peas and last fall’s harvested potatoes, smothered with farmer’s butter.

To me, canned salmon tasted oily and smelled fishy – a food better suited for salmon loaf than for lettuce, but the fresh peas and potatoes with butter and parsley garnish suited me fine. While filling up on veggies, I’d stir the fish around the plate and hide some under the lettuce.

Fresh salmon from Alaska or Canada cost plenty in those days, and more often than not, we were better off buying lobster.

In my late teens and early adulthood, potato salad and grilled barbecue chicken cooked on a backyard grill took over in my family and in families of friends and acquaintances. If the aquaculture industry hadn’t taken off, I suspect that choice would have become the traditional July 4th meal, and chicken is the food of choice on this holiday in so many families.

Supermarkets with plenty of fresh salmon strengthened the July 4th tradition, and speaking of tradition, we have two more customs with peas and potatoes on the Fourth.

1. Gardeners like to plant peas in April so they can have fresh peas from their own toil by July 4th – a New England custom for sure.

2. A well-known tip for cooking boiled potatoes allegedly goes back to a founding father, Thomas Jefferson. After peeled, quartered potatoes finished boiling, he advocated that cooks should discard the water. Then, with the potatoes still in the pot, place it back on the stove to dry water off the potatoes, which makes them more fluffy.

I like a large baked salmon fillet for the holiday, and in the past, often brought home Atlantic salmon from Canada.

My recipe for this fish comes from Canada, too, and James Beard made it famous.

After preheating the oven to 450 degrees, bake the fish for 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Be precise with the measurement by using a ruler. For instance, lay steaks, fillet or whole fish on a board and measure at the thickest place. If it is 2 inches, the cooking time would be 20 minutes. If the salmon is 3¼-inches, cook it 32 minutes, 30 seconds.

When done, the meat turns from glossy pink to moist, cloudy, lighter pink – the essence of salmon cookery.

Many times in my adult life, I have had an extra special July 4th dinner because the peas came from my garden that morning and the potatoes from the garden the previous fall. Often enough, the salmon would be a landlock or Atlantic from water near home.

What could be a more democratic meal than that?

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]