I keep a framed photo on my desk. Three fishermen crouched on deck, wearing orange Grundens and matching end-of-a-long-day grins. Team ’77: friends born a few months apart, working on a salmon troller that shared our birth year. This picture is proof of the enduring nature of friendship forged on Sitka’s docks. Boat kids understand impermanence, the ease with which people can wash away. Fighting the opposing tides of our lives, we grabbed each other more than twenty-five years ago and held fast. We still haven’t let go.
One of my beloveds celebrates his birthday this week. Always a trailblazer, Andrew is the first of us to hit thirty-eight. When I try to recall our earliest meeting, more recent memories intervene. Like when I had an ugly break-up, he took me in and resisted saying I told you so. Or the full day he spent with a rented rototiller, readying my yard for a garden I never planted. I was a witness when he and his husband married. I call their son my nephew. Sometimes it’s hard to find the just-right birthday gift, but not this year. He’s been asking for my salmon banh mi recipe all winter.
Start with a coho backbone. This isn’t a mere ingredient; it’s a lesson to be kind. I reframe my inner dialogue – those meat-laden bones aren’t embarrassing evidence of my clumsy cuts; they’re my good fortune – and scrape with gratitude until the spine glistens and the small bowl cradles a salmon sunset. Add salt, pepper, minced garlic and ginger. A couple green onions, some finely diced lemongrass. Lime juice. A few shakes of oyster sauce; some sesame oil. An egg, maybe two. A cup or so of panko.
(Here I can’t hold back a chuckle. Imprecision exasperates Andrew. Good-spirited razzing is a hallmark of our friendship. Knowing someone means knowing their buttons. Knowing someone well means knowing which ones are okay to push.)
Mix and form small patties. They’ll want to come apart, so coat the sides with more panko and let them firm up in the fridge. Bonding takes time. Warm the baguettes and assemble toppings. Cucumber, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro. Pickled carrots and daikon, prepared a few hours earlier. A salmon banh mi doesn’t happen by chance. This is a purposeful sandwich.
(In friendship and in cooking, some things can’t be faked. That’s why, fun as it is to give Andrew a hard time, I’ll also give him Fishes & Dishes, an excellent cookbook with a Vietnamese shrimp sandwich that offers precise pickling guidance. Compromise is key.)
Heat some oil in a skillet. The patties cook fast, just a few minutes on either side. Dress the warm baguettes with mayonnaise and chili garlic sauce, spiced to taste. Layer on the veggies. Add the fish, taking time to breathe deeply, marveling at the wonder of wild salmon. Whether in person or in memory, enjoy with a dear friend.
(Thanks to Alaska Dispatch News for publishing this as a “We Alaskans” column, January 25, 2015.)