Monday, January 4, 2010

Twelve Days: The Sardine Man Cometh

You need to have a good sense of humor to be part of my family. My mom, the oldest of 4 children, her three siblings being boys, tells stories of merciless teasing doled out by her brothers to her, to each other, and to anyone who crossed their paths. One of my extended family's favorite expressions is "I've got broad shoulders" meaning that they could endure whatever sarcastic savagery the others could dish out. For better or worse, my husband, the youngest of four boys, shared a similar family dynamic and has become the teaser in chief in our household.

Fortunately, Thor, though an only child, is pretty good-natured about all this. In fact, he's gotten pretty handy at dishing it out as well. For example, Mike told him a tall tale about some party antics in which I supposedly engaged. Namely that I jumped on to a table with a lamp shade on my head yelling "I'm the Queen of England." Now this was funny and all when it was bounced off the confines of our family circle. But when in New York, Thor repeated the story to my aforementioned uncles, oh boy. Of course, the retelling of the story was inspired by Thor's attire - a tee shirt with a penguin wearing a lamb shade and holding a microphone, that had been purchased by a certain spouse. Thanks Mike.

Such familial teasing resulted this past Christmas in the newly emerged legend of the Sardine Man. The details of its creation are a little fuzzy despite it being only a few weeks old. It all started when I chose the menu for Christmas eve.

Usually, we serve a grand piece of meat. However, having dished out an absurd amount of beef the week earlier at a party for 255, I wasn't feeling very carnivorous. I flirted with venison, which is favorite here, but didn't think that the reindeer who would arrive later that evening would be too pleased. After searching through most of my go-to cookbooks, I found a recipe for Halibut Barigoule, and I settled on a Provencal-inspired meal complete with panisse fries and aioli.

Unfortunately, my mother, whose German heritage has been noted previously, was nonplussed. That is until she decided that we should have an Italian-style Feast of the 12 Fishes. 12 fishes!

We kept the halibut as the main course, added some oysters (2 different kinds), crab, and caviar that adorned golden potato pancakes as hors d'oeuvres. There were also toasts slathered with harvest butter and topped with smoked salmon and trout. Our pasta course incorporated mussels, scallops, shrimp, and clams. That was 11. My last selection was a bit of a tease to my mom: sardines. Living on Long Island, my mom loves much seafood - but little oily fishes are not her friend. Pristinely fresh, I served them en escabache (sugared vinegar) with oven-dried tomatoes from the September harvest, olives, and plump garlic. Their little beady eyes peered out from under a blanket of balsamic. They looked so cute. What was a mom to do but show her son these little beauties?

Imagine the horror of an American 5-year old, especially one that just saw Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which maligned the poor sardine. Shrieks ensued. Mission accomplished. Over the course of 12 hours with grandma, grandpa and the grand teaser of them all, daddy, we'd created a new Christmas character: Sardine Man. We obviously painted a pretty vivid picture as all of our teasing resulted in Thor taking a bite, albeit a very small one, of the pickled sardines.

And you know what? Santa must be a pretty good tease as well, because lo and behold, when Christmas morning arrived and Thor emptied his stocking, there, along with the bakugans and baseball toys, was a small tin of sardines.

Apparently, today WBEZ re-played a segment on sustainable seafood, in which I served as a source. In hearing that, this post seemed quite relevant because we're all going to have to become a little more comfortable with the Sardine Man if we want our children and their children to be eating fish when they are adults. Salmon and tuna are delicious but we're exterminating them by treating them as a inexhaustible quantity. Let's expand our fish choices and show some love for the little oily ones.

To learn more about sustainable seafood options, check out the following resources:

Paul Johnson Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood

Monterey Bay Aquarium Pocket Guide or iPhone app

The Shedd Aquarium Seafood Wallet Guide

Here in Chicago, we've got a great resource in Dirk Fucik of Dirk's Fish & Gourmet. Like my catering company, his fish shop is a Shedd Aquarium Right Bite partner. His email newsletter is a veritable treasure chest of information about sustainable fish choices. To sign up, visit his website.

Posted as part of Fight Back Fridays


  1. Love this story and love Dirk's and Shedd! They both participated in my Chicago chefs seminar Teach a Chef to Fish.

  2. Jacqueline,

    When was your seminar? Also, just went to your blog and learned that you too are a former attorney. Cheers to getting out of the law.


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