Native Foodways: Roast Salmon on Sticks
Editor’s note: In honor of National American Indian Heritage Month in November, we are sharing excerpts from Rayna Green’s chapter on Native American food in the Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook. The book was published by the Smithsonian in 1991 and is now out of print.
To talk of Native American cookery is to talk of the oldest foods and the oldest cooking methods in North America. It is to talk of food and cooking traditions based solely in the natural universe, of things gathered from the ground, from trees and bushes, from plants, from fresh and salt waters, from desert sands and mountain forests, from animals as old and older than the people who took food from them. And to talk of Native American food and cooking is to talk of dynamic change, movement, acceptance of the new and strange, and creative adaptation, like Native American people themselves.
In the Northwest, salmon and the other fish that traverse the big rivers are the source of life. Life revolves around fishing, whether in fresh or salt water. Heat smoking and drying are the major form of preservation, while shallow-pit and direct-fire baking provide the cooking source. Ceremony, song, dance, and prayer bring back the salmon each year to spawn and make their run for preservation of their species. Killer whale, salmon, and the other inhabitants of the water appear everywhere in artistic material form, as clan and family spirits that guide and define people’s relationships with each other.
Roast Salmon on Sticks
This recipe was written by Agnes E. Pilgrim (Yurok Tribe) in Crescent City, California. She participated in the Folklife Festival’s Native American Program in 1977.
- Dig a pit about 5 by 3 feet and 6 inches deep. Loosen the soil around the edges, which lets the sticks penetrate deep enough into the ground so that the sticks and the fish on them stay upright.
- Build a fire in the pit, using seasoned maple, apple, oak, or another wood that does not contain pitch.
- While the coals are heating up, which take about 2 hours, fillet the salmon. Allow about 1/2 to 3/4 pound per person. Once it is filleted into slabs, cut each slab into pieces about 3 inches wide.
- For roasting sticks, we use redwood, which is whittled out of seasoned straight-grained redwood, each about 3 feet long and 1/2 inch thick and wide. I sharpen my sticks to a point on both ends to allow me to pierce each piece of fish between the fleshy meat and skin. Then I slide the first piece down the stick until it is about 10 inches up from the bottom. Each stick should hold 3 or 4 pieces.
- Once all the fish is on the sticks, season with salt and pepper. Push the stick into the ground around the edges of the pit. Always face the fleshy part of the fish toward the fire, because this part should cook first. It take about 1 hour to cook the entire stick, but start by cooking each side for about 15 minutes or until whitish streaks can be seen in the fleshy part of the fish.