For several generations in the Northeast, certainly New England, a traditional Fourth of July meal has captured our fancy: 1) fresh salmon, preferably Atlantic or landlocked (both Salmo salar), 2) peas straight from the home garden and 3) last year’s home-grown potatoes – boiled simply per Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation.

I am a bona fide Maine baby boomer. In my childhood fresh salmon proved too expensive for most folks and my family lacked the angling skills to catch fresh landlocks and certainly Atlantics, the latter a tough target-species in Maine where runs were sparse.

So, our July 4th meal consisted of potato salad, canned salmon from Alaska (yuk!) and canned peas (more yuk) instead of frozen. The meal was more traditional than tasty, particularly the ever-so fishy canned salmon, and I’d groan at the thought of eating it instead of barbecued chicken or hot dogs.

In the 1970s, aquaculture Atlantic salmon and a better economy allowed us buy fresh salmon at a good price or provided enough income to travel to Canada. So in the 1970s and again in the later 1980s and early 1990s, I caught Atlantic salmon from Quebec or Nova Scotia for July 4th.

In between those years, Maine landlocks, and yes, even Atlantic salmon from this state, served as the main dish for this most American of holidays. When I couldn’t catch an Atlantic salmon and had too much pride to buy an aquaculture salmon, I’d make do with a large landlock – either frozen from an ice-out mania catch or from a recent success in early July.

To do the tradition right, it was crucial to catch fresh salmon or freeze one, get peas into the ground in mid-April and boil last year’s potatoes from our own garden.

Yes, this tradition was a serious business, particularly for outdoorsy Mainers who fish, garden and care about American traditions. I did them all – providing the ingredients made the meal special.

And typical of many Maine anglers and particularly hunters, the food-gathering process included gardening and gathering wild foods – such as fiddleheads, mushrooms, berries, drupes, fruits and even beach peas.

Folks often overcook salmon and make it dry and tasteless. James Beard borrowed a technique from the Canadian government that ensures perfection – it’s done when the rather translucent pink first turns to a moist pink but not a dry pink.

The recipe begins with precisely measuring a salmon’s thickness from side to side (not back to stomach). The cook then bakes it in a preheated 450-degree oven for 10 minutes per inch of thickness. (For example, if the salmon is 21/4 inches at the thickest part, bake it for 221/2 minutes.)

When cooking boiled potatoes, Thomas Jefferson (no kidding) had good advice.

When the potatoes are soft but not mushy, Jefferson advised to dump out the water, leave the potatoes in the pot and put them back on the stove to dry. This makes the finished boiled potatoes fluffy rather than wet and sticky, after mashing in our plate with a fork. It really works. Add butter and garnish with fresh, chopped parsley.

As for fresh peas – follow any recipe that emphasizes not overcooking them.

When baking salmon, follow the 10 minutes per inch at 450 degrees rule, but two additional tips ensure perfect results:

• Make sure the oven has reached 450 degrees before starting the salmon to cook.

 Use a metal baking dish rather than ceramic, the latter takes too long to heat up and impedes the 10-minute rule.

When baking a fillet or whole fish, the thin parts cook more quickly. So, if Aunt Ethel likes overcooked fish, serve her the thinner part near the caudal (tail) fin. If a New York City debutante prefers properly cooked salmon or proclaims a fondness for sushi, serve the thicker shoulder section to her.

That’s the beauty of cooking fish. Different thicknesses of the fish cook to a consistency to please most palates.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at

[email protected]