Canned sardines. Who out there at the pinnacle of culinary sophistication takes them seriously? Famous cooks who have written wildly popular cookbooks ignore them. These adventurous trend setters may turn out a whole chapter of entree salads with 15 bizarre ingredients apiece, but not one of them is a sardine.
How dear they would look as a garnish, an uneven number fanned out on the plate, meaty sections leading away from tiny little tails. Well, maybe that's it. Sardines are too graphic.
Europeans believe otherwise. Almost every country on either side of the Mediterranean seems grateful for these inexpensive cans packed with flavor. Scandinavia. Brittany. Sardines end up as fillings for pies, as pasta sauces, mashed to a paste for quick-fix pate's, and even eaten simply with a squeeze of lemon. English cooks have been known to arrange a can of sardines on buttered toast and cover them with Welsh rabbit. (Tender tummies quail.)
In the past few months, a faint whisper that canned sardines are edible has been picked up on this side of the Atlantic. Outrageous cooks are strewing them on those silly pizza variations. Sandwiches like the ones Dagwood Bumstead makes in the comic strip appear with sardines -- without fried eggs or big bologna. Even traditional Sardinian and Sicilian recipes are rewritten with canned sardines replacing fresh ones.
Still, without the help of The Silver Palate or Wolfgang Puck, sardines are disappearing from the grocery shelves suddenly and swiftly. Plain, ordinary people who have never tasted walnut oil or sun-dried tomatoes are finding slots in their daily menus to fit a can.
Two categories of the population have been stimulated to consider the sardine delicious, according to recent scientific research. Older people are responding to reports that fatty fish like sardines are full of the monounsaturates that lower blood cholesterol. Another sterling quality is that they are rich in calcium, and young women becoming aware of osteoporosis are gobbling up every calcium source in sight. According to the Maine Sardine Council, a four-ounce can of sardines has more calcium than a glass of milk.
Almost everybody should be pleased to know that sardines are quite low in calories. Canned in mustard sauce, they will be only 160 calories for a four-ounce can. Those in oil, drained and patted dry won't be much over 200 calories per four-ounce can.
The next "Maine" canned sardine you eat may have come from Brazil. A steady, generous supply of juvenile herring (which is what sardines are) has always been a problem on both coasts. For Maine this is the third disastrous year in a row.
In California, the entire industry faded to nothing in the '30s. To find an answer, marine scientists took core samples from the ocean floor in the area where herring had been rich and discovered that the cycle of abundance took place about every 20,000 years.
"I don't think we want to wait that long," said Earl Conrad Jr., chairman of the board at Port Clyde Foods Inc., in Rockland, Maine, "so we've gone international and are getting small herring from all over the world. They must be similar in taste and texture to the ones we catch in Maine." Most recently they have found a perfect fish as well as a good supply in Thailand.
All the sardine stories told in Maine these days are sad ones. The packing plants have dwindled to a precious few, from a busy 100 after World War II to about a dozen now.
Herring is an environmental fish, a surface feeder that eats only tiny floating plants and animals called plankton. The very word is Greek for "wanderers," and that is what the plankton have done. The herring have gone wandering, too, and will return when some mysterious combination of water temperature and trade winds brings the plankton back again.
The industry, however, must hang on in Maine, catching what it can in local waters and processing as much of the international catch in Maine as possible. Experienced packers are a resource, skilled workers to keep happy, or they'll strike out for some part of the country where jobs are more abundant.
This is a way of life in coastal Maine, where jobs depend on the quantity of the catch, whether it is juvenile herring to can, mussels to clean, groundfish to fillet or seaweed to dry and package.
Lighthearted moments still occur. In summer, sardine workers have packing contests, and once you've seen one, you'll be ever more impressed by the tail-to-nose neatness of sardines in a can. Port Clyde Foods can boast the national champion, Rita Wiley, a trim, energetic woman. She has managed to fill up 64 cans in seven minutes, cutting head and tail from each herring with a scissors and tucking each away in the universal 3 3/4-ounce cans. Her speed makes hands and fish blur before your very eyes.
This, like most fishing industry jobs in Maine, is piecework, and Wiley can make up to $1,000 any week from July to March, when the canning is done.
"No machine can do the job," Conrad said. "One was invented in Norway, but the amount of people necessary to monitor its progress made it useless."
In the opening of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," published in 1945, the sardine boats have just come in to Monterey, and the factory whistle has blown to let the workers know they must get on line quickly. They drift past the reader, giving Steinbeck the chance to describe them inside and out.
Port Clyde Foods has updated the factory whistle. When supplies are in, and it's canning time, local radio spots are read at frequent intervals. If the worker calls the plant, he or she hears a recording that says to get ready to come to work. The plant has seven vans that are sent around to pick up the workers.
You may think you know everything about canned sardines there is to know. I did, but discovered that my sardine smarts were very shallow. New England traditionalists would be astounded to know that some Maine sardines are packed with tiny little red and green chilies floating about in the oil, the kind of chili one finds in authentic Szechuan dishes.
New Yorkers are enthusiastic about sardines in mustard sauce, but no one in Mississippi would touch them. Washington's rich population mix has a wide variety of sardine customers who accept them in many marinades and many shapes.
Hawaii is Port Clyde's most successful market. Back in the '30s a man from Port Clyde Foods went to the islands with a dynamic sales presentation.
"He made sardines a staple there," said Martha Waterhouse, marketing director for Port Clyde Foods, "even though Hawaii is a fish eater's paradise that didn't need another fish, particularly one that came in a can."
Nor do they want anything to do with the new ring can opening that is neat and simple. Every can of sardines sent to Hawaii is the old-fashioned paper wrap that encloses an old-fashioned key.
Waterhouse was surprised to learn the Islands' favorite recipe. "They open up the can, set it directly on the stove, and when the oil starts to bubble, they turn the whole thing out over a mound of freshly cooked rice. A little soy sauce sprinkled over it, and that's that."
The traditional sardine look -- probably a dozen packed head to tail in two rows in iridescent splendor -- has branched out to include larger fish packed four to a can. The newest pack is called a fish steak, a herring slightly larger than a sardine cut crosswise to look like miniature salmon steaks about 3/4-inch thick. They are meaty and versatile.
Maine sardines are packed in soybean oil because it keeps the price low and no one has made a noisy fuss. According to Conrad, most people prefer the neutral taste of soybean oil. "The Mediterranean canners used olive oil in the first place because it was convenient and easily available."
You can spend a lot on sardines, almost $10 for a prestigious four-ounce can from France. The only way to tell if it is that much better than the one for 60 cents available at any supermarket is to open them both at once and have a taste. I'm happy with the 60-cent variety, drained and patted with a paper towel, moistened with a few drops of lemon or lime juice.
Sardines are good hot weather food, and here are some ways to use them.
ROASTED GREEN PEPPERS STUFFED WITH SARDINE SALAD (4 servings) This recipe comes from Mexico City. If you have a source for poblano chilies, by all means use them instead of green peppers -- maybe two to a serving if they are small. Canned roasted chilies are much too mushy.
4 medium green bell peppers, a boxy shape that can stand alone
3 3 3/4-ounce cans sardines packed in oil
1 cup finely minced celery
1/4 cup finely minced scallion, including some green
1/4 cup sliced pimento-stuffed green olives
1 teaspoon (or more) finely minced pickled jalapen o pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon minced parsley or fresh coriander
Garnish: lettuce, cherry tomatoes, black oil-cured olives, tortilla chips
Blacken the pepper skins either under the broiler, or over the flame of a gas burner. Pop peppers into a paper bag and allow them to steam until cool enough to handle. Remove the skins, carefully cut around the stem, and remove seeds and ribs without tearing the peppers. Chill.
Drain sardines and place in a bowl large enough to contain the rest of the ingredients. Add celery, scallion, olives, jalapen o pepper and mayonnaise. Fold the ingredients together gently. Fill peppers to overflowing, sprinkle them with the minced parsley or coriander and set them on a lettuce leaf on a chilled plate. Garnish with cherry tomatoes and black olives, and pass a basket of tortilla chips.
PASTA WITH SARDINE AND FRESH TOMATO SAUCE (6 servings)
3 3 3/4-ounce cans fish steaks in oil, mustard or tomato sauce
1 lemon, grated rind and juice
6 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (2 pounds)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried basil crumbled
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 pound linguine or spaghetti
Drain fish steaks and place in a shallow bowl large enough for the rest of the sauce ingredients. Top with lemon juice and grated rind, the tomatoes, parsley, basil, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir gently to distribute all of the ingredients and set aside at room temperature while the pasta cooks.
Bring plenty of salted water to a boil and cook linguine or spaghetti for the least amount of time suggested on the box. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and top with 1/3 of the sauce. Top with the rest of the sauce and serve immediately.
SARDINE STUFFED EGGS (Makes 12 egg halves)
6 hard-cooked eggs
1 3 3/4-ounce can sardines or fish steaks in oil, drained
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley or dill
Halve hard-cooked eggs lengthwise and drop yolks into a sieve or ricer. Press yolks through into a small bowl. Mash in the sardines or fish steaks, the mayonnaise, butter and mustard.
For the most dramatic results, scrape filling into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and pipe into the hollow of the egg whites. Alternately, spoon the filling into the egg whites and press decoratively with the tines of a fork. Sprinkle with parsley or dill.