Believe What You Will, I Still Say Planking Is a Gimmick

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, November 9, 2005

I have read your column with great enthusiasm and interest over the last 10 years. I usually find it to be educational and helpful, and I had assumed well researched. Your planking story was a huge disappointment because you have many facts wrong and your research was lacking.

Oh, yeah? Well, I may be wrong, but so are you! My column has run for about eight years, not 10.

Seriously, I do welcome comments of all sorts from my readers. Yours is not the only reproof I received following my skeptical column about cooking salmon on a cedar plank. I said the wood added little or no flavor beyond that of its smoke when it chars, and I questioned whether the early Northwest Indians really did cook on planks, lacking as they did steel saws and lumber mills.

Here are some comments from readers who took me to task.

From the chairman of a university anthropology department: "Aboriginals . . . on the Northwest coast were making stone axes, mauls, adzes and wedges there by 4400 B.C. The mauls and wedges were used to split straight-grained cedar logs into planks, which they used for building houses and boats as well as (presumably) planking salmon. So while they didn't have lumber mills with band saws they were nevertheless able to make lots of cedar planks. Now I'll just have to try it [planking] myself."

From a chef: "I attended a multi-day seminar at the Smithsonian on fish and seafood. A wonderful presentation was given by a Native American from the Pacific Northwest about the 3-day salmon festival that is still held in various places by different tribes. . . .

"As for the salmon, it is prepared the same way it has been for millennia: Make a big fire, butterfly the salmon and make a cedar slat frame that can be held in the ground, vertically around the fire . . . . The women . . . move the apparatus to the correct heat, where you can hold your palm up to the fire for 5 seconds. The searing holds the juices inside and the salmon, when done, literally bursts with juices and flavor when it is punctured.

"You only steamed and smoked your fish. To do it correctly requires indirect heat (half of your grill). Cedar shingles work better and can be purchased at Home Depot ready to go (untreated bundle). Soak them, layer with sliced onions and lemon and top with dill, salt and pepper and put into a 450-degree or hotter grill. Roast at high temperature for 20 minutes or until done. If it has not created a crunchy crust, you cooked it at too low a temperature."

Well, sorry, folks, but I still must wonder whether the good flavor of planked salmon, done either way, isn't due to the high-temperature searing, rather than to the infusion of any unique "cedar chemicals" into the fish. The following Q&A, I believe, reinforces my position.

When purchasing cedar some years ago to line a closet shelf, I found that regular cedar (such as you probably bought at Home Depot) is not the same as "aromatic cedar." I had to go to a specialty lumber store in the Washington, D.C., area to find the aromatic kind. I wonder if the early Northwest Indians had an even more aromatic type of cedar that they used to plank their fish?

No, oddly enough it's the other way around; the Indians' wood was substantially less aromatic.

The USDA Forest Service's Tree List catalogues nine species whose common names include the word "cedar," only a few of which belong to the true cedar genus Cedrus . The aromatic Eastern Redcedar, actually a juniper tree, Juniperus virginiana , has the property of repelling clothes moths and has long been used in cedar chests and closet linings. But it doesn't grow west of the Rockies.

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