By Nancy Covert
What’s the best way to cook a salmon?
Ask Dennis Mulvaney, who’s part of the four-man crew that prepares the main ingredient for Steilacoom’s traditional waterfront feast.
For the past 40 years, a special “secret” sauce has played a big role in the success of the annual Salmon Bake.
Besides the Sauce—concocted by Col. Don Rehburg—though, is a crew of talented, dedicated cooks who preside over the grills for more than five hours during the event.
Two seasoned cooks are Dennis Mulvaney and Craig Rehburg—both with 20+ years of “service” on the salmon side of the operation.
The Salmon Bake, begun in 1971 as a fundraiser for the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association, has continued to attract seafood lovers who flock to Sunnyside Beach to take part in this more-than-a-quarter-of-a-
Dozens of community volunteers take part in the big beach picnic: from corn shuckers to clam steamers, from tomato slicers to pie servers. The Noon-4 p.m. event attracts more than 600 diners who’ve made the event a Northwest Community tradition.
Mulvaney, who’d cooked for the Colonel’s Waverly Restaurant (the original one on Bridgeport Way) was “volunteered” for the Salmon Bake about 14 years into the operation after one of the original cooks “quit.”
Before Mulvaney left work that Saturday, (he’d already prepared a huge batch of the popular “Three Bean” salad), the Colonel asked him, “so…what are you doing tomorrow?”
“Nothing,” Dennis replied.
“Oh, yes, you are,” said the Colonel. That set the tone for the next 26 years of Last Sundays in July.
“I had no idea of what I was doing,” he says. Fortunately, Jonathan Harris, one of the Bake’s volunteers, showed him the ropes. Although he’d done a bit of cooking during the years (including four years working with Rosa Kreger, former Bair Store proprietor), Dennis says, “I’m not a chef…but I am a d—m good cook!”
Until last year the salmon cooking crew consisted of Maj. Gen. Dan French, Mulvaney, Rehburg and former Steilacoom Public Safety Director/Chief Bob Drozynski. Mulvaney says that he doesn’t know who’s taking the Chief’s place since Drozynski returned to New England last fall.
That replacement, Dennis said, “is up to the museum’s Board of Directors.”
A five-ounce piece of salmon takes about 10-15 minutes to properly cook. The grill cooks have developed a routine for cooking the salmon—It’s a two-man job to flip the large metal screens. Craig calls the command to “turn toward the truck” or “turn toward the dumpster.”
Dennis’ culinary skills aren’t limited to the Salmon Bake. While he’s retired—from the U.S. Army—he works “six days a year.” Dennis helps with the Spaghetti Dinner in February, and the Fourth of July Barbeque Stand (includes prep and serving time). Both are local Chamber of Commerce events.
While there’s no “secret” spaghetti sauce, bottles of the Colonel’s BBQ sauce also are available for purchase.
By 10 a.m. on July 31, the cooks will have the coals heating up; ready to grill the first of many batches of salmon. (Last year SHMA added a hot dog option for kids). Customers purchase tickets, pick up plates, and napkin-wrapped cutlery, then follow the route to the Picnic Shelter for clams, clam nectar, fresh-picked corn, sliced French bread, sliced tomatoes, three-bean salad (approved by the Colonel’s wife, Betty—it’s another tradition, Dennis explains, saying that Betty does quality control on the beans every year).
Save room for dessert—the waterfront meal ends with a slice of apple, cherry, berry or some other variety of fruit pie.
Expect the Colonel to be there, too, keeping an “eye” on the operation.
Although he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll cook, Dennis is proud to be part of this event—probably one of the largest community-sponsored meals around, he speculates.
So…Surrounded by all those tantalizing aromas, when do the cooks eat?
“We don’t,” Dennis says.
“We nibble throughout the day.”
“Mistakes (too well-done pieces of salmon) are tossed into the blackberry bushes.
“Local raccoons dine on charred discards for the next few days.”
Visit the Museum’s website at www.steilalcoomhistorical.org for more information. A yellow school bus shuttles Bake patrons to and from the beach that day.
The best time to come to the Bake, Dennis advises, is “between noon and 1:30 p.m.”