There’s something about canned fish that makes me squirm. In two ways.
First, there is the idea of inexpensive and tasty protein that requires little or no preparation. As I stand in some fancy épicerie before shelves of canned hake, turbot, and mackerel imported from the icy seas of Scandinavia I almost tremble with desire. Not for the greasy cans of oily and bony flesh packed too tightly and sealed with gelatinous goo that is best reserved for prison food, I mean those lovely and colorful flat cans of filets in mustard sauce or tender morsels of something or other in olive oil and herbs. Cans wrapped in waxy paper bearing attractive photographs of the contents spread seductively over a bed of lettuce with tangy rings of red onion placed tantalizingly on the side (next to the disclaimer: SERVING SUGGESTION). Sometimes an alluringly slender hand is seen in the image, holding a fork in lurid anticipation.
It is those images of apparently healthy and delicious cold fish dishes, best served with a crisp pino grigio or even, if one is feeling saucy, a Californian fumée blanc, that make me crazy. I want to pile my pannier high with those oceanic delights and scurry home, stopping only for a head of Boston lettuce and the required red onions.
Then there is the reality. If you succeed in opening the can without dismembering a finger or two, you look down to see a pack of gooey muck just before your eyes and airway slam shut against the fishy stink. Bleh! I just can’t seem to reconcile the vast disparity between what I hope for and what I get.
I think sardines may be the culprit. When I was young my father would occasionally open a can of sardines and would tuck into them, cooing and clucking about how tasty they were. To me they were just stinky. Years later, when I was much more open to epicurean experimentation, I read a passage from Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food — a book in which he describes how luscious simple and fast foods can be — about the pleasures of canned fish, how “sardines can be almost better than anything.” Even the cheap ones, he said, can provide “a perfectly decent supper when broiled or jazzed up with a little mustard.”
I was transformed. I rushed over to Warshaw’s and bought a gold-wrapped can of Brunswick sardines. I raced home with thoughts of crackling fish skin under the broiler and the aromas of a real man’s supper piquing my palate. Ugh. It was oily mush. I felt like I was eating bones and guts and everything. Bleh.
Every few years I go though this ritual, be it a can of Norwegian herring in pepper-cream sauce with capers, or plain old sardines. Most of the time I never even open the can. It just sits there, gathering dust, the colorful package fading, until my next relocation, when I can justify throwing it away or dropping it into a charity food basket so as not to have to move it. The only thing I can handle is tuna — chunk, packed in water.
It has been awhile. I’ve been reading a number of things about the benefits of omega fatty acids and how canned sardines are a good source. There are some new and tasty-looking varieties of sardines on the market now, with hot peppers and mustards, or packed in water instead of oil. Perhaps with a bit of lettuce and mayo on a toasted baguette with a sprinkle of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. I can feel the desire growing. It’s just a matter of time…