As you may have heard, America's last sardine cannery closed down last week in Maine (though it may get a second life as a processing plant for other seafood).
I was startled and a little confused by this news, because sardines seem to be so trendy these days, showing up on menus at both fine and casual restaurants in cuisine that ranges from Italian to Vietnamese.
There's even a group called the Sardinistas in California, who hope to overcome the little fishes' rather stinky reputation by touting their tastiness, sustainability and health benefits. As Washington Post food writer Jane Black explains, the group's basic message is: "These are not your grandfather's sardines."
Ah, yes, my grandparents' sardines—I can picture those: Slick, gray-skinned, nearly-whole creatures plopped into pop-top tins, often carted back in suitcases from vacations in Norway. I don't recall if I ever even tasted one; the smell alone made my squeamish. My family liked to tease me about this, saying there must not be any "real" Scandinavian blood in me if I wasn't born loving sardines. (Then again, they allowed, I sure did love potatoes—so maybe I could pass the test after all.) And at a picnic with the other side of the family, I had a male cousin who decided he loved sardines after realizing that the sight of their soft spines made me run away squealing. My brother soon discovered this neat trick, too.
But I realize that I'm an adult now, and a silly little fish shouldn't scare me. In fact, I've been trying to convince myself that I should like sardines. They're considered a highly sustainable seafood choice because they're low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly. Nutritionists like oily fish like sardines and herrings because they're packed with omega-3 fatty acids which help your brain and heart, along with calcium and vitamins B-12 and D. They also tend to contain less mercury and other accumulated toxins than larger fish species like tuna.
So, on a friend's recommendation, I ordered the salt-cured sardines at 2 Amys, my favorite pizza place in D.C. I was surprised to see what the waiter brought me: thin pink strips of flesh, almost like lox, laid out on a plate with a drizzle of olive oil. Not what I remembered from childhood! The smell, however, was still something of a challenge. At first I draped a sardine over a hunk of bread and lifted it toward my mouth, but put it back down when the olfactory signals to my brain screamed "cat food!" Using a fork worked better, since it minimized the under-nose time. The taste was very salty—in the way of good, strong olives—and the texture was tender. I didn't hate it. (Faint praise, but hey, it's progress.)
Now that I've gathered some courage, I'll move onto tinned sardines, but I think I'll still need to disguise them a bit. I like Alton Brown's idea of smashing them on toast under a layer of avocado.