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Vine Maple Studio: Fish Fry

This week, I will write about another Waschke family tradition: the Fish Fry. The Waschke Fish Fry was nothing like the hundreds and thousands of Fish Fries held all over North America. I’m not sure why the Waschke Fish Fries were even called by that name. They did involve fish, but the fish was always salmon slowly roasted over an open fire. The fish was never fried, never dipped in batter like fish and chips, and always a whole salmon.

I have been told that my great grandparents, Gottlieb and Bertha Waschke started the Waschke Fish Fry tradition. Gottlieb and Bertha had six daughters to marry off. One of our old neighbors told me that my great-grandparents hosted many large parties in search of suitable husbands for their daughters. The generation that attended those parties is probably all gone now, but I remember occasionally running into folks who remembered my great grandparents’ parties when they heard my name was Waschke. Whether the Fish Fries were part of a scheme to marry off daughters, I do not know, but all my great aunts were married eventually, so it could be true. But I also think my great grandparents, especially Gottlieb, liked a good big party. I think I have pictorial proof of this that I will bring out someday.

I mentioned in my last blog, Hog Butchering, that my grandpa, Gus, sometimes fed wheelbarrow loads of salmon to the pigs. From that, you might surmise that the Waschkes did not think much of salmon as food, but you would be utterly wrong. Salmon was a delicacy that rivalled my grandma Agnes’s cinnamon, raisin, and apple stuffed Christmas goose. I don’t remember that my grandmother ever cooked salmon, except maybe in her spicy and vinegary fish soup. I once tried aalsuppe (eel soup) in a bierstube in Germany and I was shocked to discover that it tasted exactly like my grandmother’s fish soup, which she called “fisch stip.” I believe “stippen” is low German for “to dip”. I don’t quite understand Grandma’s name for the soup, but I loved it when she made it, although I also seem to recall that neither my grandpa Gus nor my dad liked it.

I had a similar surprise when I happened to read this excerpt from James G. Swann. The Northwest coast; or, Three years’ residence in Washington Territory. (New York : Harper & Brothers, 1857. Pp. 108-109. https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/bcbooks/items/1.0222667 )

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We did not wait till the fishing was over for our breakfast, but, when the sun got up high enough to shine clear above the peak of Mount St. Helen’s, old Brandy-wine [a white settler] called us up from the beach, and gave us a glorious repast of salmon, just out of the water, cooked in real Indian style by his Indian wife.

The choice part of a salmon with the Indians is the head, which is. stuck on a stick, and slowly roasted by the fire. The other part is cut into large, flat slices, with skewers stuck through to keep them spread; then, placed in a split stick, as a palm-leaf fan is placed in its handle, with the ends of this stick or handle projecting far enough beyond the fish to be tied with a wisp of beach grass to secure the whole, this stick is thrust in the sand firmly and at the right distance from the fire, so that the fish can roast without scorching. Clam-shells are placed underneath to catch the oil, which will run from these rich, fat salmon almost in a stream. Neither pepper, salt, nor butter were allowed during this culinary operation, nor did I find they were needed; the delicate and delicious flavor would have been spoiled by the addition of either.

I was so much pleased with this style of cooking salmon that I never wish to have it cooked in any other form, either boiled and served with melted butter, or fried with salt pork, or baked with spices. The simpler a fat salmon can be cooked, the better; it retains its flavor with perfection, and is more easily digested; and the only style is to roast it before an open fire.

Son of a gun. Swann’s (or Brandywine’s wife’s) recipe for Fish Fry salmon and the Waschke family recipe for Fish Fry Salmon were the same.

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The Fish Fries in my memory were presided over by my uncle Arnold. His method was almost identical to Brandywine’s wife’s recipe moved forward a century in time. My uncle began by starting a wood fire and topping it with green vine maple logs. He fastened the salmon to chicken wire netting with wires in a steel angle iron frame rather than sticks and suspended the rack over his fire. The salmon roasted slowly in the vine maple smoke. Vine maple sap and wood is sweet and gives salmon a unique flavor. Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union in Seattle is not the place it was when Ivar was still alive, but it made alder smoked salmon famous. However, for me, alder is a poor substitute for vine maple. I think my uncle would differ with Swann on seasoning: he used brown sugar on his salmon, but he would have agreed with Swann that the point of seasoning salmon is to taste the salmon, not the seasoning.

In the old days, according to my dad, Fish Fries often were inspired by the arrival of a member of the Lummi tribe with salmon. Later, we would get the salmon from fishermen off the dock in Bellingham or Blaine or a fishing neighbor would drop off a salmon and still later buy it from one of the fish markets.

I often think that there must be a link between Waschke Fish Fries and the Salish potlatch tradition. I know that in the fifties, my grandparents had occasional visitors from the tribe, sometimes bearing salmon, and, of course, I mentioned before that my father was delivered by a Lummi mid-wife. I also know that Grandpa sold potatoes and bought pigs from Lummis. Exactly how the salmon tradition made the jump from the Lummi tribe to the tribe of Waschke Germanic interlopers, I don’t know, but I do know that the salmon at a Waschke Fish Fry and at the Lummi Stommish would be hard to distinguish in a blind fold test. And I have searched for German roasted salmon recipes that might have inspired Waschke Fish Fry and have found nothing. The most important similarity is the intent: the essence of potlatch is generosity and reciprocity among friends and neighbors. This was the spirit of the Waschke Fish Fry. The more partakers, the better.

Copyright (c) Marvin Waschke. All rights reserved. 
Marvin Waschke
Marvin Waschke

Waschke is a Ferndale native who grew up in a farmhouse on the farm his great-grandfather’s family homesteaded. As a software architect, Waschke worked on IT management projects for close to 30 years. He has authored 3 books on computer technology including “Personal Cybersecurity” (available at the Ferndale Public Library) which addresses problems faced by individuals in a computing realm that is becoming increasing hostile to users. Waschke currently serves on the board of trustees of the Whatcom County Library System.

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