In Praise of Polarizing Food

Canned sardines turn many Americans off to fresh sardines, which is a shame. In Tin House‘s 2009 Appetites Issue, Jeff Koehler shares the little fish’s pleasures, describing how eating canned sardines in his vagabond youth led him to savoring fresh sardines as an adult, which culminated in years of culinary experimentation in his adopted home of Barcelona. Koehler’s essay was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2010 anthology and is for anyone who’s ever loved something other people find gross.

Sardinas en escabeche became part of my repertoire, and I still enjoy it in autumn when the hues and scents of the dish feel right for the cool, clear days. Eventually, I learned to prepare sardines in many different ways. At home we like them pan-grilled and eaten with plump grapes. Or grilled and crowning a slice of toasted country bread piled with strips of roasted red peppers, eggplant, and onions. Or batter-dipped and fried with slices of acidic apple. These days, my two girls love it when I bury a mess of sardines whole under a mound of coarse sea salt, and then bake the lot in a hot oven for 15 minutes. They enthusiastically take turns breaking open the salt crust with a wooden mallet while my wife and I scramble to dig out the succulent fish—moist and completely cooked in their own juices—before the girls crush them.

But, without a doubt, the most pleasurable way to eat fresh sardines is a la brasa, grilled outside in the open air over hot embers. The flavors are at their robust finest, the flesh sparkling and briny, shaded with smoky oils. Inside, that distinct smell of searing sardines is overpowering, even pungent (and immediately alerts every neighbor as to what’s on the stove), but outside, among green leaves and dusty loam, or on a sandy beach with sea breezes, it’s evocatively, stirringly aromatic.

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