The Joy of Tinned Fish

And other stinky gastronomic delights

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Photo by Chris King on Unsplash

Last year, friends invited us last minute to Pinnacles National Park. We scurried around, grabbing this and that to throw in a backpack: crackers, apples, bananas, cookies, and a couple of tins of sardines.

We walked through narrow canyons and straw-colored meadows, alongside forbidding rock faces, and eventually up to a look-out comprised of massive round boulders where we plopped ourselves down, famished, and began opening our rucksacks.

Our friend passed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out to her kids. I pulled out our bag of plain crunchy crackers and the two innocent-looking tins. I draped a dishtowel over my knees, braced my elbows to reduce the chances of flinging fish oil on anyone near, inserted my index finger into the little metal loop, and pulled, as carefully as possible. The can creaked. Oil seeped.

“Ew, what’s that?” shrieked my daughter’s friend.

One of the moms in our group raised her eyebrows, unable to disguise a look of mild disgust.

I ignored all that and began building perfect little boats of crunchy white, salted cracker topped by glistening slabs of sardine filet, olive oil dripping off the edges, to sail into our waiting mouths.

My daughter and I dug in happily. Our friends made periodic fun of us. Or, at least they did for the first ten minutes. Then, I noticed my friend’s husband glancing over from time to time with a look of tentative curiosity.

“Would you like one, Ernie?” I asked.

“Sure, I’ll try,” he replied sheepishly.

I made a tasty little boat for him and passed it down the line (his daughters transported it with their faces turned away), at the end of which he popped the entire package into his mouth. Delight spread over his face.

“That’s pretty good,” he said.

One of the girls looked slightly interested. I made her one. She ate it. She liked it. Soon, everyone wanted some, everyone but the mom with the original aghast expression, that is.

Tinned fish was our super power that day. We ate all of the contents of both tins, and it was incredibly satisfying, tasty, fun, nutritious, and even elegant. Or, at least, I thought so.

But, then, I am my father’s daughter, and my mother’s too, and I like smelly foods, the richer the better, the stinkier, the better. For my father, cheese that didn’t smell like socks that had been worn a week wasn’t worth the bother. Liver and sweetbreads sauteed in butter and madeira and eaten out of the pan was a not-uncommon occurrence.

For my mother, creamy Irish butter, fermented anything, capers and olives and prosciutto and any manner of highly spiced sauces and chutneys was the point.

Our friends also don’t like lamb. They dislike it so much they won’t eat it, even at a friend’s house. This is because it “smells gamey.” I’ve never understood this “gamey” and “fishy” conversation. I believe game should smell like game and fish like fish. Oysters should smell of the sea, and be as briny as possible. And we should consume them with the sea in their shells. This nonsense about rinsing the oysters — I reject such strictures.

My son used to have a Sri Lankan girlfriend who loved lamb as much as I do. We were planning to make lamb for a neighborhood dinner when we learned it simply would not do for this particular family, due to the gamey smell.

Renata was deeply offended. She felt slighted. I was surprised to find that I did too. We both felt we’d been judged for loving lamb, which, of course, is the strangest thing. Where might this originate from?

I spent some time today googling Irish and Protestant animosities and foodways, but came up with little. Regardless, I have a hunch this may stem from a particularly WASP-y attitude toward immigrants — in the case of the last generation, against Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants. In the case of Renata, against more recently arrived South Asian immigrants. I don’t know if this has any basis in fact, however.

For me, food should be high-flavored. It should not be insipid, unless that is what’s required, for an upset stomach, perhaps. No. I want my flavors complex, keening, high-toned, arresting, and a lot of fun. I want my food to grab me and insist upon my complete attention.

Like my dad, I want my cheese old, raw, and runny.

It’s exciting. It’s enlivening. It’s sublime.

Go ahead and get yourself some Spanish or Portuguese conservas — canned seafood delicacies, and see what I mean. Disgust your friends… and make them jealous.

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