When most people hear the words “New England dinner” their first thoughts usually run toward a lobster dinner, a clambake, or an oyster shuck. But there is another kind of seafood that has a long association with the Fourth of July, and that is poached salmon with egg sauce.
The legend has it that Abigail Adams served Atlantic salmon, fresh garden peas, and new potatoes to John Adams on the first Fourth of July in 1776. And while many New Englanders admit to eating salmon on the Fourth of July, finding strong ties to Abigail Adams remains, well, fishy.
The first clue that this may be more of a treasured tradition promoted by a well-intentioned chef rather than fact: Mr. & Mrs. Adams were actually in separate cities on the first Fourth of July. Another clue suggests that John Adams thought July 2 should be celebrated as Independence Day. A third clue comes in the modern form of marketing, the kind of confidence that has declared that we have a National Chocolate Cake Day, and that April is Grilled Cheese Month. Also, doughnuts are free on the second Friday in June.
These declarations about food are eagerly adopted because it gives us an excuse to indulge in the foods we already like.
It seems the New York World’s Fair in 1964 had something to do with connecting poached salmon and egg sauce to the famous founding couple. An enterprising restaurant specializing in American cookery published the menu in question, sourcing it to the American Heritage Cookbook. You can read more about it from this culinary history blogger.
However, I happen to own a copy of the American Heritage Cookbook published in 1964 and I don’t see a reference to Abigail Adams at all. In my edition it simply says:
“From the earliest days it has been a tradition all through New England to serve Poached Salmon with Egg Sauce, along with the first new potatoes and early peas, on the Fourth of July. The eastern salmon began to ‘run’ about this time, and the new vegetables were just coming in.”
Atlantic salmon used to run in the rivers from Canada all the way down to the Long Island sound. Today, as a consequence of industrial and agricultural development, Atlantic salmon is now mostly found in Maine. Sometimes I can find wild Atlantic salmon in the market, but unfortunately I had to resort to farmed salmon when testing this recipe.
So, did the Adams family eat salmon on Independence Day? Maybe it doesn’t really matter. The point is, in New England, poached salmon with egg sauce has been a continuing tradition. At least this is what I’m told. Having lived in New England most of my life, I can truthfully say I’ve never had poached salmon on the Fourth of July. Hamburgers off the smoky backyard grill, yes. And gigantic bratwurst, “brats,” served by the local firemen wearing red suspenders when we lived in Wisconsin. But that’s a Midwestern story.
Americans have always been quick to establish traditions, toss them out, and make new ones. We’re good like that. And if saying Abigail Adams served poached salmon on July 4 sold a few more plates in 1964 and makes us feel more patriotic when we eat it, where’s the harm (outside of being historically inaccurate)? After all, do we really know if George Washington actually cut down that cherry tree?
Tall tales are as American as apple pie. The point is, Abigail Adams was a woman of vision. And George Washington was a man of valor. Those facts are indisputable. We need our founding stories as we lift up our chins and spirits in wonder to give meaning to the fireworks bursting overhead.
Go ahead, serve up this New England legend on the Fourth. It’s tasty. Somewhere, the wild salmon are running from sea to shining sea.
Poached Salmon Steaks
6 salmon steaks, 1 inch thick
3 slices lemon
1 bay leaf
3 or 4 peppercorns
Parsley sprigs and fresh dill for garnish
Heat 2 quarts water to boiling, reduce heat, and add salt, lemon slices, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Add fish and simmer, allowing 10 minutes per measured inch of thickness, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, cool, then carefully remove bone and skin, keeping steaks intact. Serve in platter and cover with egg sauce. (For added flavor, mix some of the fish stock with the milk for the egg sauce.) Garnish with parsley and fresh dill.
Egg Sauce for Salmon
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heated milk (or 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup fish stock)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 hard-boiled eggs (hard boil eggs: Cover eggs with water 1-inch submerged in sauce pan. Bring to a boil. Cover and remove from heat. Let sit 17 minutes. Drain and cool eggs under running water)
Fresh parsley and mint
Melt butter over low heat in heavy saucepan. Mix flour into the butter and cook slowly, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes until well blended. Gradually stir in hot milk. Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring, until smooth and thick. Simmer 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add 2 coarsely chopped hard-boiled eggs. Serve with poached salmon.
Serve salmon and egg sauce with peas and new potatoes cooked in boiling water in their skins. Cover with butter, salt and pepper, and chopped parsley. Fresh mint adds a nice flavor to the peas, too.
Finish off the meal with red, white, and blue shortcakes.