The Rise of the Sardine

Will Cannery Row’s signature fish transcend its humble reputation to become a chef’s staple? It should.

In January a tuna-obsessed party of cooks, teachers, and bon vivants got on a bus at dawn in a San Diego parking lot and headed south across the Mexican border and down the hilly, dramatic coast of Baja California to the thriving port city of Ensenada, where the groggy group (many of them assembled by Sam Popkin, a food-loving professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego) transferred to a chartered boat that motored for more than an hour into the Pacific. It slowed, and conversation quickened, when it came to its destination: several net-enclosed pens the size of backyard swimming pools, in the open sea, surrounded by small boats whose crews were preparing for an incomparably colorful and bloody spectacle—the slaughter of bluefin tuna to be air-freighted to the daily Tokyo fish auction.

Tuna have not yet been raised commercially from egg to maturity, and so underwater feedlots—analogous to the beef industry’s enormous holding areas for fattening cattle on corn—are an excellent way to bring bluefins to the peak of perfection for the exigent and profitable Japanese market, which pays a premium for sushi-grade fish.

Conversation stopped as the first majestic fish was lifted onto a barge covered with electric-blue tarps. Swarms of men dressed from head to toe in school-bus-yellow rubber held the fish by the gills and killed it with a spike between the eyes. The scene was oddly beautiful in its Matisse colors—the gray-blue of the lordly fish, calmly facing its fate; the brilliant yellow covering the men; the blue of the tarps; and the deep maroon of the thick blood. “Take off your hat when speaking of the dead,” Philippe Charat, whose company, Maricultura del Norte, owns the feedlot, said to a member of the party.

I was along not to eat the sushi and sashimi that the other guests would devour the following night at Charat’s home, in Rancho Santa Fe, a tony residential colony near San Diego. I wanted to focus instead on the very last thing we saw as we pulled away, to which the rest of the group paid little heed: a silvery stream of iridescent live fish swirling over the pens for the afternoon feeding of the tuna that had, this day, been spared. Shoveled into the water by workers in a small tender beside the pens, the silvery fish were fresh sardines. They are a large part of why these bluefins fetch such a high price. I had something in common with the tuna: I wanted to eat sardines too.

Sardines have had a surprising and important revival in the Pacific. For decades in the 20th century their abundance gave birth to an industry that fed millions of soldiers fighting both world wars and sustained thousands of Sicilians, Asians, and other foreign-born workers—the fishermen and packers of Cannery Row, in Monterey, California—during the worst years of the Depression. Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium can see photographs and machines from the cannery that originally occupied the building, and promotional films from the 1930s and ’40s showing the factory life that was the backdrop of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. (You can also watch the films at The California sardine fishery was the largest in the Western hemisphere, and in its peak season, 1936–37, fishermen took 726,000 tons of sardines.

But even as Steinbeck wrote the novel, which was published in 1945, the sardine population was mysteriously declining, and by the early ’50s the industry had collapsed. By the middle of the decade, Cannery Row was practically deserted. The easy explanation was overfishing: In the ’30s, “reduction” operations were grinding sardines into meal for animal feed and oil for paint, glue, and industrial purposes. But decades of close study of sardines after the collapse revealed that Cannery Row might have turned into Skid Row even without the voracious reduction plants. For 2,000 years the Pacific coastline had seen roughly 60-year cycles of sardines and anchovies (their cousins), following temperature cycles: Sardines prefer warmer water, anchovies prefer cooler, and their populations fluctuate in similar cycles around the world. After severe restrictions and moratoriums on sardine fishing that lasted from 1967 to 1986, the fish began coming back in numbers that made commercial fishing thinkable again.

But the canneries were gone for good. Pacific sardines caught today are frozen and sent to tuna-fattening farms in the waters off, for example, Australia, which is where Charat (whose Russian-born father went into the fishing business in Mexico after escaping World War II France with his French-born wife) began thinking about starting his own farm. He thought fresh sardines would make tuna taste better than frozen ones did, and he bought boats to catch sardines up and down the Baja peninsula, tendering them to the pens during the tuna-fattening season, which runs from July through March.

Farther north, in Monterey, the sardine season gets under way in late spring, and sardines are at their fattest and best in the late summer and fall, according to Paul Johnson, of Berkeley’s Monterey Fish Market. Johnson, the author of the new Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood, has sold many San Francisco chefs on fresh sardines. “They’re really coming back strong,” he told me recently.

But that doesn’t mean that people who got used to canned tuna, which by the 1950s had replaced canned sardines on supermarket shelves and family tables, will welcome them back. The decline of the sardine population was accompanied by a decline in its reputation. In the United States, sardines had always fought an association with food for the poor—the kind of thing you eat straight from the can in a cold-water flat. Canned tuna became the wholesome food in cans, partly because it had no scary skin and bones.

But to my mind sardines taste better, and they certainly have health benefits like tuna’s. And they may be safer to eat. Omega-3s, the fats we are told will help protect us against heart disease, are now the “queen of fats,” as a recent book by the science writer Susan Allport calls them. (Linoleic acid, a polyunsaturate in many vegetable oils that has come in and out of dieticians’ favor, was the original king.) Allport’s book, a brief and absorbing guide to the past few decades of research into dietary fats, contains the obligatory nutritional advice, including, of course, a recommendation that we regularly consume fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, and lean fish, like cod—though cod stores excess fat in its liver (whence the dreaded oil) and not elsewhere in its body, as fatty fish do.

In recent years people have become wary of tuna, because of mercury. Here the advantages of sardines, which are high in omega-3s, come to the fore. According to Steve Webster, senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, most tuna live about 10 years, and sardines about six, meaning they accumulate fewer toxins—making which waters sardines come from, and the level of toxins, less of a worry. The less time in the water (or the soil, for that matter), the less risky the food: Eating low on the food chain seems a wise strategy.

The best way to rediscover sardines— and overcome residual aversion based on the tins of childhood—is to eat them fresh, just as diners graduated from canned tuna to grilled tuna to tuna tartare. (“It’s phenomenal how it spread,” Nancy Oakes, the chef of the popular Boulevard, in San Francisco, told me during the tuna expedition. “People don’t eat much cooked tuna anymore.”) Almost any ambitious restaurant has grilled tuna on the menu, cooked to remain raw in the middle. My uncharitable theory is that people like grilled tuna or salmon because it’s good for them and has very little flavor—just a bland richness. Sardines do have flavor. The fresh sardines that come to restaurants are about 6 inches long, and with their slim bodies and silvery skin they arrive on a plate looking as pretty as trout. But the taste is trout with character. (The trout you get in restaurants and markets is farmed and pallid.)

I go frequently to Rendezvous, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Steve Johnson, the chef, almost always has grilled sardines on the menu. The height of the season is summer, but he also buys sardines frozen, and always from the same Portuguese fishmonger; the fresh sardines available on the East Coast come from across the Atlantic and from the Mediterranean. Johnson, himself an “amateur fisherman,” defends oily fish like mackerel and bluefish, a great Northeast treat: “When they’re really fresh, they’re pristine, and they smell the way they’re supposed to—clean and like the sea.” Johnson serves sardines with classic accompaniments to oily fish, such as a fennel and black-olive salad with preserved-lemon vinaigrette, and he likes them with smoked paprika, too.

Judy Rodgers, the chef of Zuni Cafe, in San Francisco, has been serving fresh Pacific sardines since the late 1980s, and she buys them whenever Paul Johnson, at the Monterey Fish Market, gets them in. She bases her recipes on dishes she tasted in Italy made with either sardines or anchovies, which are more prized there: deep-fried sardines with sage leaves and (her modification) lemon slices; grilled sardines served with salsa verde or marinated in her version of chimichurri, the peppery Argentinean marinade. Rodgers told me that if the day’s fresh sardines don’t sell out (they usually do), she grills or fries what’s left at the end of the night and stores the fish in a sauce or marinade, to be put on crostini (often “slathered with aioli”) and served with drinks—a method she recommends for the home cook who can find fresh sardines.

Most home cooks, of course, can find only canned sardines—and some chefs are not above serving them. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune, in New York, serves unclichéd food you might eat at home. But one cliché she likes, and has made a specialty, is canned sardines on Triscuits with mustard. “They got me through some very lean times,” she told me. Now she charges $5 for a whole tin’s worth with Triscuits, Maille brand Dijon mustard, and cornichons. The brand she chose after extensive tasting is Ruby, from Morocco. I, too, found Moroccan sardines to be my favorite after I tasted every kind of canned sardine I could find (see sidebar, “Unpacking Packed Sardines”).

One place you’ll be hard-pressed to find fresh sardines on the menu is in Monterey. Mark Shelley, a documentary filmmaker who works in a building next to the one that still houses the laboratory of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, the model for “Doc” in Cannery Row (it’s unmarked and not open to the public), is trying to find investors who, like him, think that young people can and should be lured into discovering the virtues of sardines—maybe by calling them something else. The one time he found sardines on the menu at the Sardine Factory, a landmark Monterey restaurant, they were canned, “beautifully presented” with chopped egg and croutons, and lovely with Chardonnay. Where did they come from? he asked the server, who “hemmed and hawed” and finally revealed what the can said: “Product of Latvia.”

I found out more from Bert Cutino, the big, amiable owner of the restaurant, who remembers when Cannery Row was “going huckety-buck” and he would take his father’s catch to the canneries. Workers responded to the sounding of horns signaling a new delivery of sardines for processing; you could identify Cannery Row from afar by the smell. “We kind of prayed for it to disappear,” Cutino told me.

Most workers wouldn’t think of eating canned sardines at home, let alone cook fresh ones. Today Cutino calls sardines a “hard sell”: Diners don’t want them even if he marinates them in vinegar or uses other tricks to make them taste “less fishy.” To me, though, really fresh sardines don’t taste fishy at all—and as for canned, it’s time to rediscover and embrace an indispensable staple.