By Hanna Raskin, Epicurious.com
My favorite exhibit at Seattle's Museum of History & Industry, which is readying for a major cross-town move, is an interactive salmon butchering station. Museum-goers are urged to rapidly slice a wooden fish to the beat of blinking lights: It's basically Whac-A-Mole for history geeks.
After each successful round, players are asked whether they're ready to go faster. Even with recorded voices exhorting them to "hurry up!," it's impossible for slicers to win the final round, which is set to a rhythm only machines can maintain.
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Pacific Northwest salmon canneries were so overwhelmed by demand in the late 19th-century that small crews of Chinese laborers were forced to process as many as 2,000 fish in a ten-hour day. After an automated processor was invented in 1906, many of the bigger plants were able to further increase production, churning out 9,000 cans of sockeye salmon a day.
The heyday of canned salmon is long past: Freezers and airplanes rendered the region's canneries irrelevant, making it possible for eaters from Virginia to Arizona to have fresh salmon for dinner. Although grocers continue to stock a few canned salmons, the vast majority of salmon fans now buy their fish from the fish counter.
But the scorn eaters developed for canned salmon somehow doesn't extend to canned tuna, which remains a popular lunch item. I recently called a museum devoted to interpreting one of the few remote canneries still intact to find out why.
"It's a good question, for sure," Steve Milum, operations manager for the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, said before hanging up to consult his colleagues.
Milum got his answer from a canning industry veteran. Tuna, it turns out, doesn't freeze well. If fresh tuna isn't an option, canned is the only viable choice.
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When frozen, tuna "goes extra soft and mushy," he says.
Milum also points out that the price of canned salmon is a deterrent for many shoppers: Canned salmon typically costs at least $1 more than canned tuna.
Still, canned salmon may be ripe for revival. The Atlantic last week published an essay by Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, outlining why canned salmon is a better choice than canned tuna. According to Greenberg, salmon is better managed, sustainably caught, and lower in toxins.
"It does require a little more inventiveness to make canned salmon take the place of tuna," Greenberg wrote. "But armed with the usual condiments one would apply to tuna--lemon, capers, mayonnaise--you can make a delicious meal from one of the world's last truly healthy wild resources."
If eaters heed Greenberg's call, it might be time to restart the engines on the canning machines once needed for a nation of salmon eaters to gets its fill of fish.
Are you a fan of canned salmon?
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