Maine Sardines – Goodbye To All That

In Maine, Last Sardine Cannery in the U.S. Is Clattering Out reads the headline in the New York Times, over a story about the end of an era and with it the end of a lot of jobs,  in a place where not enough jobs has been a problem for generations.

Some examples from the comparatively recent past

Very affecting in its way, but as the story itself points out, you’d probably have to look long and hard for anyone who regarded this as a major loss to gastronomy.

Rugged, I guess, would be the word for Maine sardines: thick, meaty, insistently fishy without being otherwise flavorful,  packed in soy oil, in tomato sauce, in screaming yellow mustard. The only person I know who eats them is Lois, and I’m sure she does it more out of habit – and loyalty to local products – than anything else.

When I moved to Maine in the early 70’s, the once numerous sardine plants had been closing for years. But there were still 21 of them, including a couple right up the road in Rockland and another right across the river in Port Clyde. That’s what they were called, sardine plants, I don’t think I ever heard anyone from Maine call them canneries.

Nor did anyone think they were particularly romantic. The only good thing to be said for them was that they provided jobs, hard, dangerous, smelly jobs for women (I think the packers were all women) who didn’t have other options. There were no benefits. It was just classic piecework; the faster you packed the more you made, and being really, really fast was a source of considerable pride as well as a pretty good income.

Of course not being really, really fast was depressing, emotionally as well as financially, and the constant need for greater speed caused a great many painful, often serious injuries. Before automated processing, the first thing packers had to do as fast as possible was cut every fish down to size with heavy, razor-sharp shears.

With those shears we arrive at the gastronomic aspect: Maine sardines are not little fish, they’re the tails of mid-size herring. The rest of the fish (Clupea harengus), anywhere from 1/2  to ¾ of the whole, was sometimes sliced and canned as “fish steaks,” but most of it was sold to lobster fishermen for bait.

Other than being less expensive, Maine sardines simply can’t compete with alternatives like Scandinavian bristlings, aka very young sprats (Sprattus sprattus). Although bristlings are as fishy as the Maine article, their flavor is more interesting, with nutty overtones, and the texture is smoother without being mushy. Furthermore, they’re tiny, so eating them bones and all does not require pretending to enjoy the gritty crunch you get with bigger fish.

Please note there are 16 to 22 little fish in there. Maine sardines come 3 to 6 per can. Completely different animal.

The received wisdom seems to be that there’s no such thing as a “real sardine,” that almost anything small and oily (and canned) can qualify. But there IS a fish called Sardina pilchardus, caught among other places in the Mediterranean near Sardinia. It’s a sardine when small, a pilchard when  full grown, and it’s – usually – the fish chefs mean when they’re going on about fresh sardines.

Somewhere around 1980 the UN’s Codex Alimentarius Commission decided that there were 19 species that could be canned as sardines, but all except S. pilchardus had to have some kind of qualifier (country, other place name or common name of the species) on the label. Sounds like first among equals to me. Plus I’m pretty sure S. pilchardus was the first sardine to be canned – in France, in 1826.

Something unfortunate has happened; my brain has been hijacked. Can’t get the song out of my head:

Oh my Darling, Oh my darling, Oh my daarling Clementine…sardine boxes without topses sandals were for Clementine.

Only cure is to go out and plant some sweet peas, hoping I’m not too late instead of too early.

Final note: Back in those early days in Maine there was a common phrase of resignation for when one had a less-than-splendid job like being a motel housekeeper. “Oh well,” the person would say, “better than cuttin’ fish.” The hard working people who did it hoped for better for the next generation, and so do I.

Maine sardine can photo courtesy Maine Maritime Museum.

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  • Anne Said,

    But our sardine canners went out years ago, in Monterey. It is a shame that such another old way of making a living is gone now. Despite the hard work, it is honest and suited the area. My English relatives often eat pilchards, indeed. I still do too; large or small, they are a reliable source of protein, omega fatty acids, and calcium.

    Thank you for the bit of nostalgia.

  • Tatiana Said,

    I really want to learn more about Codex Alimentarius. The rumor mill has it pegged as one of the horsemen of the apocalipse, while food historians consider it a natural outgrowth of standardization for large food manufacturers to be able to sell their goods in all member countries without worrying about hundreds of differing laws. But I think a ton more research is in order. Good story though.

  • Joe Spieler Said,

    thoughtful and informative, and (if you will forgive the affectation un peu triste. I love sardines–good, bad, or indifferent.

  • Sarah S. Said,

    Please someone make a poster of the sardine can collection.

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