Finally, a Cause We Can Believe In: Sardines, Wonderful Sardines!

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Photo: istockphoto

We’re still stuck on an NPR story from a couple of weeks ago about a Monterey, California–based group called the Sardinistas. Their valiant efforts to get people to eat sardines instead of overfished tuna causes us to wonder for the umpteenth time: Why do sardines, one of the most flavorful of fishes, get such a bad rap? Sure, it’s obvious why the types who “don’t like fishy fish” wouldn’t like them, but are these killjoys really so abundant, and isn’t tuna plenty fishy also? How did sardines become the Spam of the sea? Per a find-a-food search on Menupages, only 360 New York City restaurants serve them (mostly greasy spoons trafficking in the canned variety) versus a whopping 3,615 that serve tuna. Never mind the 4,000-plus dining establishments serving salmon or the 5,400-plus offering shrimp. Shockingly, even the reviled anchovy is more readily available than sardines, obviously because the former is accepted (albeit barely) as a pizza topping.

A wise man (Anthony Bourdain) once said: “You really need to know seafood to know what people mean when they say it tastes like the ocean. What they really mean is it tastes like the deep ocean — like the deep, clean ocean smells and feels.” Not only do properly grilled sardines evoke that, but they’re also relatively cheap. At Lucien, a generous helping of St. Tropez–style sardines is a steal at $12. The Harrison, which breads and roasts them in the oven, is also practically giving them away, at $12. A side of wild-caught Portuguese sardines is $4 at Ortine, just $2 more than toast. On Prune’s bar menu, the sardines with Triscuits and mustard are the same price ($5) as the radishes. And sardines are appearing on other bar menus, too: Minetta Tavern marinates them for just $6, and Bar Blanc wraps them in pancetta for $8. But forget cost efficiency: We’ve never minded splurging on the $14 sarde a forno at Peasant.

A recent Washington Post article about the Sardinistas claims that more chefs are putting sardines on the menu (e.g., the sardines and chopped Greek salad at Kefi) — but even with dozens of Italian restaurants opening and the recession making diners more budget-conscious (not to mention more attracted to oily, fatty foods), there hasn’t yet been a true revival here. The Post points to one of the reasons: Most diners eschew fish that look like fish, complete with creepy heads and pesky bones. But it also cites some reasons to eat sardines even if you’re not sold on their natural deliciousness: They’re low in mercury and PCBs and high in proteins and omega-3s; they’re now abundant and, due to quotas, fished in environmentally friendly ways; and they’re currently being squandered on feeding bluefin tuna (it takes at least seven pounds of sardines to produce one pound of tuna).

For our part, we’re going to issue a sardine alert whenever a restaurant opens with them or adds them to the menu (we’ll issue a retroactive alert for Aqualis, for starters). But will it be a wasted effort? Are sardines destined to be a has-been along with their cousin, the once great herring?