Sam's Blog

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Sardines Are Great!

Posted by samgr on January 5, 2007

So here’s a dilemma.

More and more evidence is emerging that eating fish is really, really good for you. Recent studies have shown that consuming a lot of fish — an excellent natural source of omega-3 fatty acids — can help you to live a longer and healthier life by staving off heart disease and dementia. Plus, if you have moral or environmental qualms about meat-eating in general, but also have health or quality-of-life concerns about swearing off all forms of animal protein, pesco-vegetarianism can look like an attractive option.

(Bias alert: I am a vegetarian who eats fish.)

On the other hand, there are also some possible health concerns about eating a lot of fish, mainly because of the possibility of high concentrations of mercury, PCBs, and other harmful chemicals that can build up in seafood. Also, from an environmental perspective, overfishing and poor resource-management has led to the collapse of many populations of once-abundant species of edible fish. In November, a paper published in Science predicted the collapse of most of the ocean life that people rely on for food by 2048 if human activities continue unchanged.
And fish-farming isn’t necessarily much better; the runoff from farms can cause its own environmental problems. What’s more, if farmed fish are fed ground-up wild-caught fish, as they often are, the environmental impact can actually be exacerbated.

With all of these sometime conflicting factors at play, what is an aspiring fish-eater to think? One easy element of a solution: eat sardines.


I love sardines, and I want you to as well. Here are some of the great reasons to eat them.

Health: Sardines are great for you. They have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, even for fish. They also have very low levels of chemical contaminanation. This is because they are small and low on the food-chain. A big fish like a tuna eats many smaller fish, which in turn eat many even smaller fish, and so on. Any contaminants pass from the fish being eaten to the fish doing the eating, and become more highly concentrated, so big fish like tuna and swordfish can be especially dangerous. Sardines, on the other hand, are safe enough to eat as often as you like, according to the Oceans Alive website.

Environmental Impact: Sardines are generally harvested in an environmentally friendly manner, and are a renewable source of seafood. Sardines (as well as young herring, which are sometimes sold as sardines) are quick-growing and spawn several times a year, making them a resilient fishery. In addition, they are usually caught with purse seines or midwater trawls, which are less environmentally disruptive than other forms of fishing. (For more info on this, again check out Oceans Alive. It’s a neat and useful website.)

Delicious-ness: Sardines are delicious. I’ve never even had fresh sardines, only canned, but the canned ones are great too. They have wonderful flavor and are great on toast or crackers, maybe with some lemon. I’ve also made the sardine toast recipe in The Joy of Cooking, which is very nice as well. My grandfather swears by sardine sandwiches with onion. They have a fairly strong flavor, and if you don’t like other kinds of fish, you probably won’t like sardines. But then, if you don’t like fish, I’m surprised that you’ve read this far.

Cultural Cachet: Sardines occupy a unique position in our shared cultural and literary heritage. This is mostly because of the interesting way that they come to us: packed tightly in cans which once upon a time were opened with an external key. From this image we get the ubiquitous phrase, “packed in like sardines.” Sardines packed in their tins present an image of the organic oppressed by the inorganic which has frequently struck a chord with artists and social commentators. We see this image constantly in art and editorial cartoons; we even hear about it in Radiohead songs. Playwright and comedian Alan Bennett memorably used the image of a sardine tin as a metaphor for life itself in a mock sermon that parodied the Anglican church’s taste for elaborate metaphorical conceits. (Also see Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.”)

So for all of these reasons, I beg you to cast a second look upon the humble sardine. Small it may be, and unpossessing. But even a small fish can change your life, and for the better.

[A warning: Fish of many types are particular interest of mine, being a pesco-veggie-whosie and also having been born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts. So be on the lookout for more icthyological posts to come. Also be on the lookout for giant squids.]

Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you like sardines? Hate them? Know any good recipes? Do you know any interesting literary allusions to sardines that I forgot? What is your favorite fish? Please comment early and often! Also, here is another blogger who likes sardines, and actually knows things about them.


6 Responses to “Sardines Are Great!”

  1. Myrill said

    If you haven’t yet, I’d recommend trying the sardines in tomato sauce. Sardines are also great with a little woodstock dressing. Then again everything is great with a little woodstock dressing. Let this not belittle my love of sardines, as demonstrated by the 10 cans in our pantry.

  2. Roxie said

    Although I have only made a partial conversion to pesco-vegetarianism, I’m inspired by your praises of the small fish. I’m still a little confused about what sardines actually are–are they herring? Minnows? A species unto themselves?
    They remain a bit too fishy for my tastes, although if anyone has a recipe suggestion that mutes their flavor a bit, I might be persuaded to try them again.
    Also, isn’t it interesting how we perceive different animals on an ethical spectrum when it comes to eating them? I wonder what puts fish at the threshold of that spectrum for most vegetarians (ie: fish seem more permissible than poultry, which seems more permissible than red meat…)

  3. samgr said

    Hey Roxie. I think that there are a bunch of small fish species that are called sardines. The Oceans Alive website actually has more details on some specific ones. And apparently small herrings are also sold as sardines sometimes. Minnows I think are too small and slightly too lame to be sardines.

  4. Naomi said

    I have recently encountered fresh sardines at the italian restaurant I work at. They are really delicious and way less fishy/salty than the canned variety. Of course, it helps to have a team of prep cooks who will fillet them for you and deal with all the little nasty bits.

  5. Dangr said

    Well, first of all, I see you’ve followed my trend of usernames, although Dangr resembles a word slightly more so than Samgr. But that’s ok.

    But fancy entry—I’m impressed by your use of links, and bold, etc. etc.

  6. […] by Calamity Jim on April 29, 2011 I am a big fan of sardines (as you can see for yourself in this entry I penned for a previous blog), so I was happy to find this description of a tin of them in […]

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