A Pennsylvania Fall:
Tuna Salad Croquettes
November 14, 2021
In Berlin, if you blink too fast you’ll miss fall. For the last ten years, I’ve stubbornly insisted that fall is my favorite season. But this year, as I celebrate my decennial in this city, I will finally give up the fight and align myself with team summer. In part, it’s because I recently spent two weeks in my ancestral homeland remembering what a glorious fall is supposed to feel like. The days are still slow-baked with sunshine, but there’s a breeze that tugs against it as night falls. The late-September leaves are just starting to dip-dye orange and red and yellow. It’s sweater weather. It’s decorative gourd season. I have no feelings about pumpkin spice, but maybe I’ve just been away too long.
At the apple harvest festival, held each year in Adams County, Pennsylvania, I reanimated a twenty-year old memory. There were the vats of apple butter being stirred, the Boy Scouts selling hot apple cider. The chainsaw carving demonstration, the craft stands, the antique hand-cranked machine that makes friendship bracelets. The apple fritter, scooped fresh from a bubbling vat of oil and dusted with powdered sugar, so hot it’s hard not to burn your tongue. I grew up in apple growing country, and it has spoiled me for the supermarket. Outside Gettysburg, there’s an orchard market that always provided our autumn apples – they’d have big wooden crates piled high with different varieties, some standard, some heirloom, and we’d fill a big paper bag with them, plus maybe a pumpkin or two and whatever late summer fruits were still coming off the trees. Mom’s apple pie is the best apple pie, but the secret is Hollabaugh’s apples.
The apple fritter, scooped fresh from a bubbling vat of oil and dusted with powdered sugar, so hot it’s hard not to burn your tongue.
I went on a few runs – okay, fine, two runs – I went on two runs in the two weeks I was home, and I couldn’t help but see that the place where I grew up is really and truly beautiful. There is so much green, so many big, shady trees. There’s a creek that snakes through the park, fields of corn and soy, rolling hills, well-kept brick and sideboard houses with neatly manicured lawns. Cows graze in the pasture just down the street from the house where I grew up. In Boiling Springs, there’s a lake to walk around, and always a few people fishing at the bridge. Tucked in the woods is the old iron forge, which lent its name to my middle school, and just around the bend from that is The Bubble – a natural spring that gently burbles up from a small pool, and where I spent countless childhood afternoons soaking my feet in cool water.
The Bubble, incidentally, was the mascot for my high school. A ferocious mascot. And we were the fear-inducing Bubblers.
But I digress. I spent a lot of time driving when I was home. Not just up and down the streets of South Middletown Township, but into the mountains around State College. The two-hour drive from the Cumberland Valley takes you up through the foothills of the Appalachians (the trail itself runs through my hometown), crossing the Susquehanna at Harrisburg and making the engine of your car work once you hit Arch Rock. If you pass that way early enough, patches of dense fog hug the sides of the mountain, growing thicker the higher you climb.
I was back Stateside for my best friend’s wedding, and had driven up to State College for the bachelorette party and to help cross off some to-dos. I spent a few nights with her family, and we reminisced about times long gone and the old-old days – Liz and I have been friends since age four, so there’s a lot to reminisce about. Her dad and I got to talking about cookbooks, and he pulled out a few vintage spiral-bound Grange Fair cookbooks and church cookbooks, cookbooks put together by an association of housewives in Pittsburgh, and an A4 stapled glossy from a famed local pie-maker. This is my manna.
So while Liz’s then soon-to-husband worked the griddle in the kitchen, flipping pancakes, grilling thick-cut slices of Canadian bacon and homefries, and taking egg orders (needless to say, I approve of this union), I sat at the kitchen table taking pictures of old-country classics, like whoopie pies (or gobs, if you’re from Pittsburg) – two fluffy, sticky handheld slabs of chocolate cake sandwiching a tooth-achingly sweet wad of white cream icing. Or trilbys – a kind of oatmeal cookie stuffed with a sweet date filling. Liz’s mom told me that the secret, as told to her by the woman who makes the very best of them – is to use bacon grease instead of lard.
When her dad found an extra copy of the Grange Fair cookbook and gifted me the spare, I promised to make something from it back home.
Back home, I got lost in the many ways to build a salad around Jello, endless recipes that used the word “supreme” in the title, recipes that called for game, about thirty pages of icing recipes, and good, solid advice, like: “A little butter on the spout of the cream pitcher avoids drops on table linen.” Who knew!
I finally settled on “Salmon Sticks,” which sounded unlike something I could imagine in my mind, but also like it might surprise me. So while a grim, sunless fall day unfurled itself surlily outside my Berlin window, I mixed cream cheese, celery, and canned fish and hoped for the best.
While I waited for these odd-looking nut-rolled logs to finish baking, I scrolled through the pictures from my trip home. Liz looking absolutely stunning in her dress, goofy bridesmaid photos, a kayaking day trip with my dad, selfies taken on walks through South Middleton Park, along the Baltimore harbor.
What a gift, to have been able to travel home outside the yearly Christmas trip, to see my family, to be there for my best friend’s wedding, to feel less grumbly about where I grew up and be grateful for the ways in which it shaped my ideas of beauty and nature, without my really knowing how or why.
My timer dinged, and I pulled my… “croquettes,” I thought, sounded maybe nicer than “sticks”… out of the oven. And obviously they turned out pretty darn okay, because here’s the recipe.
Tuna Salad Croquettes
Originally published as “Salmon Sticks” from Mrs. Charles Motter in the Pennsylvania State Grange Cook Book, where it also doesn’t tell you how much fish to use, how to make mashed cooked tomatoes, or at what temperature or for how long to bake it. I couldn’t find canned salmon at the two (two!) grocery stores I visited, so I subbed with a can of tuna in oil and a can of cod in tomato sauce. With such open-ended instructions, I was a little loosey-goosey in my interpretation of the recipe. Obviously, you could go back to using canned salmon.
½ cup diced tomato (about 1 tomato)
½ cream cheese
½ cup unsweetened condensed milk
1 small can tuna (drained)
1 small can cod (drained)
1 tsp. lemon juice
3 tsp. chopped celery
2 tsp. chopped dill pickle
3 cups smashed crackers (like Saltines)
¾ cup chopped nuts (like walnut, pecan, or hazelnut)
Preheat oven to 400 ºF (200 ºC).
Sautee the diced tomato in a medium-high skillet until the moisture evaporates. Smash the tomato with the back of a spatula. Should yield about ¼ cup cooked tomato. (Could you just use ¼ cup of tomato paste? Probably.) Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together cream cheese and condensed milk. Add fish, lemon juice, celery, and pickle, and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add smashed crackers and stir to combine. The mixture will be relatively stiff.
Divide the mixture into 15 equal portions, and form each portion into a log using your hands. Roll each log in chopped nuts and place on a paper-lined baking tray.
Bake for 25 minutes or until the nuts are golden-brown. Serve with a quick remoulade of equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup with a dash each of lemon juice and hot sauce.