Salmon Spite: Some Castigation for Washington, Praise for Cajuns

Posted on May 17, 2011

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Frankenfish FTW

Image via positivelyglorious.com

This will be a short post. Just a little rant.

To the left is a common Pacific Northwestern image, a Native American ornamented depiction of the salmon so abundant in our rivers, the basis of a good deal of the pre-European cultures in this area. It’s an image I associate with Washington, with running around the soft hills on Whidbey Island or cruising out towards Vashon, Blake, Bainbridge, or as far up the Puget sound as Orcas Island or Patos, one of those distinctly rich and green Islands off the coast so choked with life that the rich verdant flush is almost frightening.

Granted I am a child of the eastern forests and semi-deserts beyond the Cascade mountains. But salmon are still a big part of the culture here. The stocks are depleting, but I still have faint (maybe half-constructed) memories of watching salmon bash and bloody themselves on the rocks of waterfalls, jumping against the current on their way back towards the eddy waters of the sounds to spew forth their genetic material and dye into a harvest for the shores.

In the east we have a great attachment to apples, wheat, evergreens, and moose. Throughout my youth the annual Green Bluff Apple Festival was one of the highlights of the year and I remember days in Chewelah collecting apples fallen along Flowery Trail Road, the mashed and mangled remains not fit for sale. We’d take that dross and throw it into an old wooden cider press and I’d churn the blades to rip it into a rich, brown ooze, thick and cut with the taste of pine and cherry wood and a slight iron tint from the tines. My friends will attest to my devotion to the Washington apple, my love for apple markets, and my ability to hold forth for some time on the relative merits of a massive Jonagold, a Granny Smith, a Red or Golden Delicious.

But I have to throw my hat in with the salmon as a truly unique and representatie feature of the distinct culture of the Pacific Northwest. It has power and a potent nostalgia even for those of us falling within the borders of the Inland Northwest/Cascadia, usually the yokel disconnects from the bulk of the population and culture to the west of the mountains.

Yet every time I see a state license plate or some other symbol, invariably Washington is represented by Mount Rainer, evergreen trees, or apples. During the selection of our state coin in 2006 we at least recognized the importance of the salmon (although the moose and apple were in the mix). And the Native depiction of the salmon even made some inroads. But sadly we wound up with a more boring, less unique and telling depiction of the salmon to represent us.

As you might be able to tell, this isn’t a very serious post. But living out east, when people think of the west coast it’s all about California. And as someone who is proud of where he comes form, as a history, culture and identity wonk who has some respect for the special circumstances and values he was raised with, as someone who feels a good deal of communion with the Columbia River as seen from Vantage (just look at it, I dare you to grow up around that and not feel some sense of connection to it), this is more important to me than I thought it would be.

It’s important in a somewhat silly way. I’m not big on nationalist identity, but in the same way a New Mexican or Arizonan will be snobbish about their chilis and Mexican food, so will I always hold onto a few dear loves and prides from the land I was raised in.

This is all just to say that, goddamnit, I want the Frankenfish of my homelands representing us to the world. I want it on a flag or a coin or something of that sort. I at least want a few people to look at it and get creeped out or fascinated and come pay a visit to the Puget Sound and San Juans or to Grand Coulee and the Columbia River Basin with me someday. There is something special, something worthwhile about Washington that deserves its respect when stacked against Seattle and Portland as entities independent of the Pacific Northwest as a whole but representative of it, and especially when stacked against the smog and smug that is California. That’s right, I said it, bring it on, friends.

This is why I stand behind my Cajun ancestry and my family in the swampy southlands of Louisiana more than I do behind the hill on which I was raised (no family out here, but still it’s an important place and identity for me). The Cajuns at least know how to embrace boudin, crawdads, and cayenne and love all that is strange, at times alienating, but distinct and joyous about the culture. I think the picture to the left sums that culture up perfectly.

Laissez le bon temps roulez! Zoot allures, that is some goddamn Creole shit right there, and I love it. Fittingly at the moment there’s a wooden placard next to my desk carved with a Bald Cypress and stung lazily with Spanish Moss shielding a crawdad, bottle of bourbon, hot sauce, a fiddle, a gator, and a holy bible. The placard reads: “What is a Cajun?” and proceeds to outline a light national identity.

Here is my favorite part of the placard, which I grew up reading:

“In other parts of the world, little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, while little boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. Little Cajun children … are made of gumbo, boudin and sauce piquante … crawfish stew and Oreilles de Cochon.”

As a Cajun, I’ve got a fais-do-do in my blood. As a Washingtonian, I don’t even get the Frankenfish. Which culture would you rather be a part of? Silly identity rant over.

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