In these screwier-than-usual times, where can we turn for comfort? To retro food! Macaroni and cheese? Too obvious. There’s probably a macaroni-and-cheese institute on every corner. What humble, reassuring staple of my youth is undercelebrated? Salmon croquettes!
Research. I learned two things I didn’t know, and wish I didn’t know now.
ONE: My sister, Susan, and I may be the only people on earth who have always regarded salmon croquettes as vertical. Our mother’s salmon croquettes stood on the plate, like little pudgy brown traffic cones. Salmon patties were flat, sure. But doesn’t the word croquette, so similar to coquette and Rockette, connote perkiness?
No. Etymologically, croquette just connotes crunch. And the standard croquette is horizontal. I have consulted—have pleaded with—friends who grew up in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia. Not one of them has ever thought of croquettes as (except morally) upright. Nor have I found any photograph or recipe that portrays croquettes as anything but round and flat. I feel like an alien, a freak.
TWO: William Faulkner’s favorite dish was salmon croquettes. (From the recipe on the side of the can.) John T. Edge reported this in 2008, after a tour of the Faulkner home in Oxford, Mississippi. And in Talking about William Faulkner: Interviews with Jimmy Faulkner and Others (1996), we read:
“Brother Will would go out and buy salmon, and he would make salmon croquettes. We would pour a lot of catsup over them and eat them until we were sick. They were great.” “Brother Will” is what Jimmy called his uncle William, who once called Jimmy “the only person who likes me for who I am.”
Well la-di-da. Our Nobel Prize–winning madman was just a down-home old boy at heart, was he? A plain jes-folks supper eater, whose books reek with incest, bad blood, homicide by—
Irrelevant, you say? Take this on board: Brother Will and Jimmy may very well have been catsupping croquettes on what (according to Lawrence Wells’s new memoir, In Faulkner’s Shadow) the family called “the Absalom table.” The same table, that is, on whose surface Faulkner finished what may be, and is certainly crazy enough to be, his masterpiece: Absalom, Absalom!
…homicide by rusty scythe, plantation conflagration, thousand-word sentences, dizzying chronological leaps, a mansion reeking of compounded infarcted festered ravaging dread bred in the sinews of the ruthless half-savage founder and his spawn and the architect who supervised the project while half-fearing he would be killed and eaten by his ruthless, near-savage client and his untouched-by-Western-civilization crew.
Absalom, Absalom! The only one he gave an exclamation point!
And great eating, on that table, was salmon croquettes? Not something more on the order of a gall-and-brimstone mélange, bear chops rare, tentacles brouillés avec orris root? Maybe he was inspired by the animal involved:
It won’t be much longer now he thought and then there won’t be anything left. Not honor not pride not spirit not soul not Ritz crackers to crumble and roll the redorange fishflesh in, not even the cylinder of tin where the Northern cold-water fish leaps immemorially, torqued forever (is he aviational fish or aqueous bird) and sleekly blue-silver even though when the time arises for taking flight up crystal falls his body is semen-swole and other-hued: lurid red-and-green in desperate venereal birth-and-deathplace-seeking resolution: time now to tear meat or squeal.
Faulkner drank, you know. But who sobers up on salmon croquettes? When do salmon croquettes seem like just the thing on which to get to doing some serious drinking and eating?
What a great writer eats can never be as great as whatever is eating him. In Absalom, Absalom! a shoe is “something between the sole of the foot and the earth to distinguish it from the foot of a beast.” Who knows how he saw a croquette.
Faulkner can’t spoil salmon croquettes for me, because come to think of it, I never much liked them when I was growing up. Salmon itself, I like just fine, having learned up North that it comes fresh or smoked. And check out my Icelandic salmon-fishing story, under gillie, girl, in my book Alphabetter Juice: Or, the Joy of Text.
Here’s what haunts me: Have I been telling nice people, all my life, things like, “I saw that little boy of yours in the Christmas pageant, perched on that stage as proud and pert as a salmon croquette”? Or “Your sister is a stand-up gal. So many people are just patties. She’s a real croquette”?