Serve With Crackers, Aquavit, and Love By D. E. Gilbert

Tuesday December 27, 2005

The handwritten sheet is punctuated with splotches of mustard-dill sauce, the garnish complement to my father’s “Gravad Lox” or “gravlax” recipe. An urgent note labeled, “Important” and triple underlined, is appended vertically along the left-hand margin: 

“Remove all bones before starting on fillets—with pliers.”  

“Enjoy!” is the exhortation he has written at the end of the instructions in his energetic, but anachronous, cursive. Enjoy has always been the bottom line with my father. Life can be absolute hell, but if you have food and drink, and the company of your family and friends, then you have the ingredients for a good time. Although age and its baggage have caught up with my father—his energy ebbing more than flowing these days—he still produces his signature salmon appetizer for the festive event that marks the year’s end. The saltiness hints at the sea while the dill conjures up the green of wreaths, holly and the rain-soaked hills that speak to the season and hold promise for a coming spring. 

I have never asked where he first acquired the recipe and the passion for the salmon dish that I have come to expect as a starter to what usually promises to be a good time.  


2 fillets of salmon (~ 3 lbs) 

Mix 4 Tbl sugar 

4 Tbl salt  

Add 2 tsp crushed white pepper corns 

“Rub fillets with most of this mixture. Chop up, pretty fine, a bunch of fresh dill.” 

I suspect that it was an artifact of distant relationship he had once had, nearly half a lifetime ago, with a Swedish woman, one that did not end well. I should ask. I can imagine him saying that the gravlax the only thing good that came out of it.  

“Place a layer of chopped dill on bottom of glass baking dish. Place fillet, skin down. Sprinkle rest of spice mix and cover with dill on top. Cover and place in fridge for two to four days—turning over once, halfway through.” 

He prepares the dish with such care, a condition bordering on obsession with a dash of pride. He complains so adamantly about the quality of salmon available at the big chains where he shops—how difficult it is to get fillets with skin, he says. I mention places like Monterey Fish, Tokyo Fish, Berkeley Bowl, but alas, they are too far outside his comfort zone, and too distant for his driving patience, and probably too expensive. The distinction between fresh or frozen, wild or farmed is not as important to him as it is to his food-snob son, although I suspect the outcome would be negligible whichever starting material is used. 

“Scrape off all stuff when time has passed.” 

I look at that line and think of the life lesson that echoes to me in my father’s voice. Get rid of all that superficial, niggling stuff that clings to us and accumulates through the years. Focus on the substance—the fillet. 

“Lay fillet skin down on cutting surface. Slip knife under skin at thin part and slide it along flat against skin and remove. Skin can be cut into slices and fried as an appetizer if you wish. It is good, but very rich.”  

Rich, that admonition, is something I picture his very own and long-departed mother, my grandmother, saying with a scowl and chill shake of her head. When my father left home he acquired the taste for the rich things and somehow, like information encoded in genes, passed this trait onto his son. 

This year, after our holiday get-together, my father handed me the recipe with little ceremony. I took the worn paper with its battle scars, the drips of ingredients embellishing the text acquired as it sat giving orders beside the mixing bowls. There was a quiet urgency to his gesture. It was as if this signaled a passing of the torch, an unspoken statement from my father to me, “While I know this dish has come to be my contribution to the holiday gatherings, I won’t always be here to provide it. So now it’s your turn.” 


Mustard-Dill Sauce  

2 Tbl Spicy Brown Mustard 

1/5 tsp Salt 1 Tbl. Sugar  

Couple dashes white pepper  

1 Tbl white vinegar  

4 Tbl corn or canola oil 

“Mix the mustard, salt, sugar, white pepper and vinegar. Stir quickly and mix in oil. Then mix in chopped dill. Then dip!”  

I can see my father demonstrate that last step—draping with a flourish the opalescent pink slice of salmon dripping with mustard sauce across a cracker and chomping demonstratively . Mouth still full, he then reaches across the low glass table, where the drink options run from iced vodka, to champagne, and the most suitable Scandinavian liquor, Aquavit. He grabs the green bottle of the latter and carefully pours a shot into a tiny crystal glass. He tosses it back and the anise-sweet tonic, viscous and full of heat, chases the chilled salty fish down his gullet. He presses back into the over stuffed chair, his eyes roll into their shadowy recesses, darkened by the gradual wasting of age and illness, and slowly a smile brightens, inducing a little bit of his personal gravlax ecstasy. As if to say, this is what it is all about. 

A week later, I extract from the fridge the baggy he had given me with the gravlax leftover from our last meal together. I nibble on the little pink shards flecked with dill and review the recipe. 

“Keeps refrigerated four to five days.” 

I see that have stretched the acceptable outer limit of consumption now to ten days, without ill effect. 

I continue reading and become perplexed. What exactly is a 1/5 teaspoon? Is it merely a dash? He would have said dash, as he had with the pepper, wouldn’t he have? Or am I simply unable to decipher his script? It’s probably not that big a deal, I’m sure. And yet, I need to ask him—while I still can.