Bonaparte, Bravery, and the Beatles

Posted in Susan Fekety on July 26th, 2011 by susanfekety
Unless otherwise noted, © Copyright 2011 by Susan Fekety. All Rights Reserved.

For years I’ve taken shoulder- of- the-season long weekend retreats to Corea, Maine — a little town on the Schoodic peninsula that looks like something out of a picture book.  It is simple and placid and beyond quiet, since it is beyond the bulk of Acadia National Park. My grownup version of “are we there yet?” is watching for the giant fisherman sign at the Stinson Seafood sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor, right next door.

Last year the cannery closed down and a lot of the locals lost work because of it.  Evidently the plant is undergoing a renaissance of sorts in a conversion to processing lobster instead of sardines, but for many years, sardines were where it was at in this sweet little coastal village. Sardines are no longer….popular. We turn up our noses; we pick the canned tuna instead.  Perhaps in your house this is true as well.  It is more than a little sad, to see things like this fading away.

Recently I attended the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s Food as Medicine conference in Bethesda.  It was wonderful and exciting and one of the best parts was meeting a fellow Mainer I was mortified not to know already, John Bagnulo.  This man is a walking testimonial to the power of passion about good food.  In his talk about ancient dietary habits (the best model for our own) he shared the tidbit that our Paleolithic ancestors are believed to have consumed around 125 grams of dietary fiber a day (the typical American gets around 10; good nutrition recommendations say to shoot for 25, which is a challenge for many.) He kept referring to sardines as “antidepressants in a can,” which made us all laugh but — ewww, sardines, right?

Now, you can’t spend much time at all reading and learning about healthy eating without coming across the list of “best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids” and there they always are, right next to salmon, flax seeds, and walnuts — sardines.  Then, when you look at the list of best fishes to consume because of low levels of toxic chemical contamination, there they are again — sardines.  Ewww.

Just what is a sardine, anyway? There are several varieties of Sardina pilchardus, and the ones under 6 inches long are “sardines”; the larger ones are referred to as “pilchards.” (Hmmm, pilchards — where have you heard that?  Probably the same place I did, which is in the song “I am the Walrus” off the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album. Semolina pilchard, to be precise, climbing up the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t know that a pilchard was actually something you could cover in semolina until I started to learn about sardines. I thought it was some unfortunate soul’s surname.)

I don’t know about you, but over the years I’ve purchased canned sardines several times and always hated them.  I tried all different kinds: smoked, plain, mustard sauce, tomato sauce, and they were all totally grose to me. I really WANTED to like them, though, because they’re so good for you!  So convenient! All that wonderful, anti-inflammatory healthy fat in a genuine Mother Nature package!  A low on the food chain source of protein!  Great for my brain and my heart — mood, memory, love, longevity!  A rich source of Vitamins A and D and B12 and calcium and selenium: there are a million reasons to love these things!  But each time I opened a can…”ewww!”

At this conference I got all worked up again about making peace with sardines. And then who came into my life but Rebecca Katz, a Bay Area gourmet natural foods chef and about as brilliant a cooking instructor as you can imagine.  She’s all about “the power of YUM” and baby, she taught and fed us YUM for four days.  Along with a healthy dose of inspiration, she shared a way to prepare sardines that I couldn’t wait to try when I got home.  I even had an abandoned can of sardines in my pantry, ready to roll.

I have made sardines her way three times now and I’m telling you, if you have been scared of these little fishes like I was, get brave and try this EASY EASY recipe — they are really good!  Not ewww at all!

  • Get your can of sardines and pour the bulk of the oil off it and dump the sardines into a bowl.
  • Mix with:  (just stir with a fork)
  • The juice and zest of ½ a lemon
  • 1 TBS red onion or shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • Handful each of finely chopped fresh parsley and basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Spread on your favorite cracker (I like this on Mary’s Gone Crackers, which are gluten free and high in fiber.)

There are, of course, nuances in the buying of sardines.  Beginner’s sardines are boneless and skinless, so opt for those. Look for ones packed in olive oil (you can get them in water but why bother, you are looking for a hit of healthy fats anyway) instead of the more common and highly inflammatory soybean oil.  (DID YOU KNOW that it was Napoleon Bonaparte who first popularized canning of sardines? These were the first fish ever to go in cans.) One can is usually between 3 and 4 ounces and constitutes one serving for an adult — so feel free to eat the whole can for lunch or dinner.

Although sardines are about as uncontaminated as you could want a fish to be, since they are at the bottom of the fish food chain and feed only on plankton, there is an issue with sustainability of the sardine harvest in many places.  According to the Montery Bay Aquarium, (which should be your go-to resource on fishes as food) Atlantic sardines from the east coasts of the US and Canada, and most of the Mediterranean Sea, are overfished in a manner that is environmentally destructive and depleting the population of sardines in that area. The sardines are OK to eat, but the harvesting is tough on the ocean, if you catch my drift.

So in your store pick Pacific sardines if you can find them, or Atlantic sardines from Portugal, which apparently has a more mindful way of fishing than other places. The can has to say where the sardines are from.  You can order sustainably farmed Pacific sardines from Wild Planet and Marine Stewardship Council Certified Portuguese Atlantic sardines from Vital Choice or in stores under the Bela brand name (I found some of these at our local Whole Foods Market.)  “Brisling sardines” are actually a different fish altogether, Sprattus spratus. They sound like they must have parts that stick in your teeth, so I think they are probably a More Advanced food than our  boneless skinless types of fish.

Over the past few weeks I have mentioned my new sardine excitement more than once.  I’ve eaten them for lunch at work and posted about them on Facebook.  I made them as an appetizer for a recent dinner party and was deeply gratified when they got a thumbs up from a picky eater* companion (”I hate to admit it — that was good!”) Even more, though, I have come to understand that there is a sardine-lover’s underground of which I was previously unaware.  It’s like a little secret people reveal when they realize that they can trust you with sensitive information, to wit, that they’ve loved sardines for years. Then they tell you how they prepare them, and who introduced them (often a grandparent.) Someday, perhaps they won’t have to be shy any more!

* I suspect he would describe himself as ‘selective’ rather than picky.  But you know what I mean.

Here’s a laignappe for poetry buff sardine fans — please do not try this hair adornment trick at home!  Ewww!

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