We all eventually reach an age where we begin to get philosophical. We ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of life?” or, “What is my place in the universe?” We may even begin to wonder… “What exactly IS a sardine?” 

The first two questions are your own to explore, but let’s dig into the sardine query together. I, personally, always thought that a sardine was a kind of fish, but in reality it is any of 22 species of fish in the herring family Clupeidae. So…every sardine is a herring, but not every herring is a sardine! It’s like an un-fun riddle! To be a sardine, these fish should be small or immature. There is no entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “World’s Largest Sardine.” I checked. Just in case.

Another thing that makes a sardine a sardine is that it is preserved or canned in oil or sauce. So a fish could NOT be a sardine, and then BECOME a sardine when it is processed for consumption. Not to complicate things further, but in some cases, unprocessed, fresh fish can ALSO be sardines. I supposed we could say that being a sardine is a state of mind, but perhaps we’d be casting too wide a net. (I had to. I’m sorry.)

Once you discover what a sardine is, you might get around to wondering why in the world we eat them. You’d be forgiven for questioning the rationale of eating such tiny fishes. After all, isn’t it easier to get one big fish and cut it into a hundred portions? 

As it turns out, no! Sardines travel in great big schools through most of the planet’s oceans. Over the history of humankind, folks have become pretty good at finding these schools, encircling them with a net, and hauling them up. 

Once these tiny fishes are caught, it’s off the the cannery, where they’re cooked and processed and packed into cans for future meals. To tell you the honest truth, when I began to research this topic, one of the aspects that interested me most was the work force responsible for getting sardines into cans. I read that industry-wide, sardine packers tended to be women, chosen for the work because they had “small hands and strong backs.” 

I found a great public radio program about the last sardine cannery in the United States, the Stinson Seafood Co. The whole thing is worth a listen if you have an hour, and the interviews with workers were thought-provoking and, at times, hilarious.

Packers talked about the bus that came out from the factory and picked everybody up for work. But not on a set schedule. No way! They went in when there was a catch and worked as long as it took to process and pack that catch. Some days it was a 8 hours, some days 12, some days 4. Eventually, schedules were regulated, but in the olden times, the fish were the boss. If you weren’t there when they were ready, they’d spoil and be wasted. No one was going to let that happen.

The women who packed the world’s sardines, in addition to trimming heads and tails off and getting them nestled into cans, made time for a variety of practical jokes. One woman recalled filling a worker’s lunchpail with nails. Another lunchpail was secretly nailed to the floor. A manager got a promotion, and showed up to work the next day in a necktie. His staff thought he was putting on airs, so they wrestled him down and nailed his necktie to the floor. No one in the whole damn interview mentioned why nails were so popular in the sardine packers’ humor lexicon, but we can appreciate it just the same. This light-hearted gaiety might ALSO be why, to this day, sardines are one of the funniest foods.

As you might imagine, working in a fish-processing facility was a fairly stinky profession. The odor permeated clothes and cars and hats, even the groceries workers picked up on the way home. But, as one packer said, “Everyone smelled like sardines, so it wasn’t like you would be embarrassed.” (This is my favorite kind of solidarity.)

Over the years, the popularity of sardines began to wane. People just weren’t throwing a can of sardines into every lunchbox the way they used to. As sales declined, federal regulations to limit the overfishing of sardines further cut into the profitability of the industry. By 2010, the Stinson sardine plant (the last in the United States) had closed its doors for good. It was the end of an era.

Luckily for all of us, the sardine population has rebounded, and you can still score a can packed in olive oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, tomato sauce, hot peppers, mustard, or just plain water. Sardines are one of the healthiest canned goods you can find! They’ve got B-12, Calcium, Vitamin D, Omega-3s, and Iron. Being at the bottom of the food chain, they tend NOT to have the issues with mercury that you’ll find with larger fishes like tuna or swordfish. Even pregnant women can eat sardines! Your baby might come out smelling a little fishy,* but as long as it’s healthy, right?

Not everyone can love sardines like I do. In fact, they are one of the most divisive foods I’ve encountered. We each have our own taste in canned fish, and that’s good, because otherwise, the grocery store would always be out of sardines, and my snacking options would be severely limited! 

I appreciate you, so I’ll leave you with one last tale from the Stinson sardine cannery. One day, an electrician came to fix a problem in the storehouse. The room was filled with wooden barrels of mustard, so to get to the issue the man had to walk along the tops of the barrels. One of the lids gave way and he fell right in. In a moment, he surfaced and climbed out, covered from head to toe in mustard and looking, according to one witness, “just like a hot dog.” 

*There is absolutely no research to show that if you eat sardines when pregnant, your baby will smell like them. 🙂