I don’t know why, but we just didn’t grow up eating sardines or herring. Maybe one or the other of my parents had too many when they were little, a bad experience, I really couldn’t say, but sardines and anchovies and herring never made it to our table, into our picnic baskets.
In the past few years, as I read nutrition book after nutrition book, reading dieticians and doctors, it’s clear it’s time for me to experiment with these foods, recommended over and over again by people from every corner of the medical and nutritional communities. These people don’t agree on much, but when I find them all promoting a food I’m not eating, a behavior I’m not trying, I have to at least try. I promised myself I would.
I can no longer ignore their advice about little fishes. Why? These foods are loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, and protein. They’re the cheapest open water fish you can get your hands on, and while they are still stocked in convenience food stores, they count as one of the healthiest “fast foods” you can hope to find on the open road, running between meetings. Read the labels on the cans, and you see they are also one of the few ready-to-eat proteins that are not loaded with the sorts of preservatives a delicate flower like me can’t tolerate.
So, I’ll start with a can of sardines. I have never even looked inside a can of sardines. I have never studied cans of sardines on the shelves of my supermarket, but skim right over this whole canned meat section of the store. Today I paid attention and found… mind numbing choices. I can choose sardines packed in olive oil, fish oil, salsa, mustard. There are several brands and options. I do what I usually do, and opt for the most impressive packaging and brand name. King Oscar of Norway graces the neat red package I choose. He’s got an expression that embraces both awe and pain. He has epaulets. These are two good reasons to eat his sardines. Another is the copy on the back of the package:
“King Oscar Brisling, the world’s smallest, most delicate sardines, are taken from the pure, icy fjords of Norway. They are then lightly smoked in oak wood ovens and hand-packed in a variety of natural oils, spring water and flavorful sauces.”
Pure icy fjords? Oak wood ovens? Hand-packed? Natural oils? I’m transfixed by a country, a people, a water body I’ve never seen or met or imagined. These sardines must be good. They have to be. How could a package carry copy like this, if it were not true? The Norweigans I know are not terribly ironic. Not known for irony, bless them. However, they do eat lutefisk. I need to temper my expectations against this people’s idea of a seafood delicacy. The ingredient list: sardines, olive oil, salt. This is straightforward. I understand the ingredient list. That is good.
Okay, I can see this package meets my every need. It grabs my imagination and satisfies my concern over scary food processing. Now, all I have to do is pay my $2.25, and then, eat up.
And there it is. I must summon the courage to open the can, and put something new, a new animal, into my mouth. I am a fairly adventurous eater, so I can’t explain why this feels so difficult for me. I have asked around: What are sardines like? What do they taste like? How do they feel in your mouth? Are there bones? Is the head there? Do you eat the bones? And I get remarkably little information from long-time sardine eaters. “They’re pretty fishy,” people say.
Fishy? They’re fish. Why wouldn’t they be fishy? This is non-information.
When I don’t have a clue what to do or what to expect, I run to the Internet. Google rarely lets me down. Rarely. Almost never. But in this case, I’m afraid, there is little to be had on how to eat sardines. Clearly no one thinks it’s important to explain how to eat sardines. Who doesn’t know how to eat sardines?
It turns out I am the only one. I remove the outer package and see this groovy flat can. I open it, and I swear to you, I gasped. I couldn’t help it. I cooed.
I’ve seen images of cans of sardines, enough to know that I will find lots of little fishes packed in like… like sardines. What I don’t expect is how pretty these little fish are.
They’re beautiful, bright silver fishes. They look precious, like jewelry. Like coin. No heads, but the tails are there. They’ve been gutted. I can’t tell if the bones are in them or not. Man, they’re so pretty. They smell like tuna, and are bathed in olive oil. They remind me very much of the minnows I used to catch for fishing bait in the Michigan lake where I grew up. These sardines are minnows without their heads, bright, bright silver. There must be 20 or so. I check the can. One little can is one serving. 150 calories. I’m hungry. Okay. A fork. I choose a small fork. Somehow I want to eat these straight out of the can using a special little escargot fork that belonged to my grandmother. It seems the right thing to do. I can’t imagine mushing or breaking up these little silver baubles in any way.
I select one out of the can, let the oil drip off. It’s very tender. Never one to mince with tasting food, I pop the whole thing in my mouth. It’s very soft. I can’t detect bones, can’t even detect the tail I know is there. It’s less intense a flavor than tuna, not nearly so salty. A nice oily fish flavor. Not nearly so strong as the low tide in Maine smells. Not nearly as mild as a hunk of haddock. Only slightly stronger than salmon, frankly. It’s the smallness of the nearly whole fish in my mouth that takes me a minute to get over. All I can think of is those minnows I used to catch in my hands from my minnow net as a young girl. I expect these little fish to wriggle.
They never do.
I ate the whole can. Happily. Where have these sardines been all my life? A new food is a rare thing for me. A new food so readily available at even the meanest of food shops is a real bonus. A food I can sneak into back packs and purses as an emergency backup ration for when I haven’t planned my food well for the day is a find. A can of sardines is the perfect thing. The perfect number of calories, the perfect food.