I’m happy to introduce my friend and fellow sardine lover, Benjy Weinberger. Neither of us were particularly happy about the recent news of the last US sardine cannery closing, so I invited Benjy here to defend the honor of one of my favorite sea creatures.
Benjy Weinberger has been eating food for over 30 years, and has held strong opinions for almost as long.
Yes, We Can! Why We Should Be Eating More Sardines
The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher until they are empty. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned.
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
A few days ago we were told the last sardine cannery in the US closed its doors for good. A symbol, so the story goes, of how far sardines–once a staple of working-class pantries across the nation–have fallen out of favor with the American palate.
But if you get past the bad “last sardine factory canned” puns, this narrative starts to seem, ahem, fishy. Because, in fact, the sardine is like Bad Company, alive, well and making a comeback.
Fresh sardines are showing up on menus in restaurants from San Francisco to New York. Your local supermarket still offers plenty of canned sardine choices, albeit imported. In Monterey, California, where Steinbeck romanticized the sardine industry in Cannery Row, a group of self-styled “Sardinistas” is working to return the sardine to its rightful place in the American diet. Meanwhile, nearby, small-scale gourmet canning operations have resumed. So it seems the supposed death of the sardine industry has been exaggerated.
So what are sardines, exactly? The term means slightly different things in different countries, but in the US it denotes any of several species of small, oily, silvery fish related to herring.
What all types of sardine have in common is that we should be eating a lot more of them.
6 Reasons To Eat More Sardines
1. They’re good for you.
Sardines pack an awesome nutritional punch. A single serving has around 23 grams of protein and is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and potassium, and only 200 calories. And even with canned sardines, all this goodness comes with only around 400 mg of sodium, which is relatively little for a canned product. Plus, they’re often packed in olive oil, itself an important component of a healthy diet.
2. They aren’t bad for you.
Sardines are low on the oceanic food chain, and therefore contain low amounts of mercury, PCBs and the other toxins that accumulate in longer-living marine predators such as salmon and tuna. This makes them a particularly good choice for children and pregnant women.
3. They’re sustainably fished.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWATCH rates sardines as a “Best Choice”. Sardine stocks are, once again, abundant, healthy and are now well-managed.
4. They’re affordable.
Prices per oz. of canned sardines are on a par with canned tuna, poultry, ground beef and other supermarket protein sources. Prices of fresh sardines vary with availability, but they are usually among the less expensive fresh fish on display.
5. They taste like fish.
In a supermarket landscape dominated by bland, artificially dyed salmon fillets, pale tuna steaks, frozen fish sticks, artificial crab meat and other attempts to sell seafood as generic chicken-like protein slabs to people who aren’t sure if they actually like it, sardines stand out. You simply can’t ignore the fact that they are, well, fish. They look like fish, being too small to fillet or grind up. They smell like fish. They are oily. They have heads and tails, scales and bones. And they taste fishy.
This is, as most people who genuinely enjoy food know, a good thing.
6. They’re delicious.
This is ultimately the most important point in favor of consuming more sardines: they are a pleasure to eat. Simple, easy to prepare and downright delicious.
If you get your hands on some fresh sardines, they feature in fabulous recipes originating from all over the Mediterranean basin. But sardines are so simple and basic, you really don’t need a recipe to get the best out of them. Just scale and gut them, brush them lightly with olive oil and coarse sea salt, or whatever marinade you make up, grill them for around 5 minutes per side, until the skin is crispy, and serve them up with a drizzle of lemon juice and your favorite fresh herbs.
And if you can’t be fussed to cook, there are few pleasures greater than mashing canned sardines, bones and all, onto buttered toast, or perhaps over a slice of camembert.
The sardine is dead. Long live the sardine!
What are your favorite sardine recipes?