The Comfort Food Diaries: There's Safety in Sardines

Zac Overman

As long as there's a can of sardines in the cupboard, I feel safe. That's a plain statement of fact, but it occurs to me, seeing it typed out, that "sardines in the cupboard" presents rich possibilities for innuendo. Sardines do generally. The Beastie Boys understood this, and may have delivered the final word on the matter with the album cover of 1998's Hello Nasty, which depicts the classic tin with its metal lid rolled back to reveal the three Beasties, packed in "like sardines," giggling. A whole lot of giggling also tended, in my experience, to accompany the playground game of sardines, a way more fun variation on hide-and-seek in which one player takes cover in a cozy spot and the rest gradually cram in like you-know-whats.

As far as I recall, that game and the sardine can that served as the mouse Jerry's bed in the cartoon "Tom and Jerry" were as close as I came to sardines during my childhood. Not that I had anything against oily, fishy fish. A very early memory reveals my sister and me sitting together on the kitchen counter, passing a tube of anchovy paste back and forth. We spoke in whispers as we furtively consumed squirts of the somewhat gritty, delectably savory substance, lest our mother catch us in this arguably gross and certainly uncouth act. To be fair, it was a vice Mom herself helped cultivate in her kids on trips to Wholey's Fish Market in Pittsburgh's Strip District. She'd buy a paper cone full of fried smelts to snack on as we navigated the cool, briny depths of the store, grease smearing our cheeks.

It wasn't until my 20s, though, when I enrolled in graduate school in England, that sardines entered my regular gustatory rotation. Where had sardines on toast been all my life? The crunch of the toasted bread beneath the unctuous fish, the way the butter at once takes the fishy edge off and intensifies the umami factor, the just-full-enough feeling one has after eating this incredibly economical dish (what did a tin of sardines cost at Tesco back then, 50p?): These discoveries far surpassed, in both utility and pleasure, anything I got from my lectures in literary criticism and theory. My love for all manner of canned, cured, and smoked fishes blossomed during that period, but it was sardines—meaty, full of flavor, not as aggressively salty as anchovies, so amenable to so many different accompaniments—that I fell for the hardest. The colorful tins, covered in throwback fonts and maritime imagery frequently tending toward the burlesque, no doubt had a lot to do with it. (An illustration of a sea otter dressed in a tuxedo, dining on brislings? Come on!) Sardines never take themselves too seriously.

The boyfriend I was living with at the time hailed from Grimsby, on the North Sea; he'd been raised, like a sea otter, on a steady diet of sardines and pilchards as well as herring, sprats, and mackerel. He taught me to make kedgeree with whatever species we happened to have on hand, combined with starchy rice, onions, hard-boiled eggs, plenty of butter, a sprinkling of curry powder, a good squeeze of lemon, and a garnish of parsley. In return, I gave him what I believe to be the best gift I've made for anyone, ever: a snow globe, containing an image of a silvery sardine clipped from an Audubon guide. Though we parted ways years ago, I'd be surprised and, frankly, wounded to hear that it's not sitting on his desk still.

From that point on, sardines represented something beyond comfort to me, something more like relief and, as noted above, safety. No matter how broke, I could cobble together a satisfying meal as long as I was in possession of a can of sardines and a box of pasta. Over the years, I both widened and refined my repertoire of sardine cookery. Fresh sardines, too, popped up to welcome me just about anywhere I went in the world—quite literally, in the case of Cornish stargazy pie, wherein the fish heads poke right up through the pastry crust. (I'm telling you, sardines are the hams of the fish world.) Or, more elegantly, in Sicilian pasta con le sarde, fragrant with fennel and lit up with saffron. Or in my all-time favorite preparation, served everywhere from Tokyo's izakayas to Barcelona's Boqueria Market and on countless beaches between: grilled whole sardines, seasoned with nothing more than salt, citrus, and smoke, a snack best demolished standing up, using only hands and teeth.

But it's my relationship with canned sardines I'm really talking about here, be they Breton or brisling. The latter, though labeled "sardines," are actually sprats, but who cares? Hot-smoked over wood fires, they're too tasty to quibble over. A pilchard's just a fully grown sardine, big and fleshy. And so on. Purists will go on about the superiority of French sardines—sometimes stamped with vintages and aged like wines—and the galling fact that in North America, you can pack a herring in a can and call it a sardine. But I'm really not bothered. They all have a place in my cupboard as long as they're not packed in water, because what's the point of that? Packed in oil, they're full of good fat, calcium, protein, potassium, and iron that I can feel righteous about eating them, and not too bad about mashing them up with a whole lot of butter, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. (Right?) Or I just smoosh them onto a saltine and serve them with a Manhattan (my paternal grandmother's cocktail, and so likewise deeply sentimental and comforting). Or, you know what? Skip the saltine. I'll happily fish them right out of the can with my fingers as I sip my Manhattan after a really stressful workday. I call this my Wednesday Speedball.

Until recently, I was also feeling pretty smug about the fact that sardines are low on the marine food chain, and therefore a sustainable choice. Lately, however,, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's watchdog website, has poked a hole in my smugness. Apparently Pacific sardines are more or less okay, but that fishery's closed until June of 2016. Anyway, the bulk of those fish are shipped off as bait for larger, less sustainable species and as feed for aquaculture. There's not a single cannery left in the US. Mediterranean sardines appear to be overfished currently, and, to be honest, I'm not 100% sure about the UK and Scandinavian fisheries. What happens when a comfort food becomes uncomfortable? For now, I'm treating sardines as more of a treat than a staple. It's still reassuring to know they're in the cupboard, waiting for some particularly difficult Wednesday, when you'll find me sipping a Manhattan and wrangling little fish out of their can with oily fingers, hoping my mother, and, don't catch me.