Flash in the Can
Sardines make a comeback on Cannery Row.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
It can be compared to the revival of fedoras and victory gardens. Suddenly, sardines are awesome again.
The slender silver fish – a Depression-era staple that gave way to canned tuna – is making cameos on NPR, The Washington Post, and Alton Brown’s cooking show. Bloggers are all over it, and a crew of locals is agitating for a sardine revolution. Yet for all the fanfare and local lore, you’ll have a hard time finding canned U.S. sardines on grocery shelves.
Daren Warnick had the idea in August 2008, when he was managing a clothing store. “Walking to my car each night, I wondered why no one was offering sardines on Cannery Row,” he says. “Granted they disappeared, but sardines are back, and it was in the news as a buzzword.”
Warnick turned to Dave’s Gourmet Albacore in Santa Cruz, makers of high-end canned tuna and salmon, who agreed to produce a proprietary canned sardine, printed with a vintage-style logo of the fish. On July 4, Warnick opened Cannery Row Sardine Co., a closet-sized store next to Fish Hopper in Steinbeck Plaza.
CRSC’s sardines are wild-caught in the Pacific Ocean from Big Sur to Washington, filleted, de-boned, skinned and hand-packed in olive oil. At $7.95 per can ($6.95 online), they’re spendy next to the $2 tins in stores. Warnick says it’s worth it. “This is the only canned sardine that’s a product of the U.S.A. you can find on the grocery store shelves.”
Warnick credits his brother Anthony with the tiny store’s kitschy layout, popping with reds and yellows, featuring historical photos and canning gear from the old days. The shelves are stocked with CRSC’s sardines and Dave’s canned tuna and salmon, along with typical tourist gear: hats, mugs, magnets, Steinbeck books and Cannery Row DVDs.
Business is looking up: Warnick sold out of his first 500 cans in three weeks. His girlfriend Meg Allen hawks CRSC products at Monterey’s Alvarado Street farmers market, and cans are shelved at Whole Foods (in Monterey), Fernwood (in Big Sur) and Sea Harvest (in Moss Landing). Warnick plans to unveil new sauces like tomato bruschetta and hopes to expand the store into a market-café.
His timing is smart: The fish has recently become the poster child for the sustainable seafood movement. Compared with tuna, salmon and shrimp, sardines are a relatively low-impact fishery. They’re light on contaminants such as PCBs and mercury, and rich with selenium, vitamin B12, calcium, niacin, phosphorous and omega-3 fatty acids. They’re so nutritious, in fact, that health guru Keri Glassman developed The Sardine Diet, a weight-loss book sold in CRSC’s store. And the contents in CRSC tins are tasty – not fishy and greasy like the stereotype, but fresh, meaty and smooth – and serve as hearty additions to salads and sandwiches.
Sardines also imbue a certain old-timey coolness, reminiscent of the days of pin-up girls and cigar-chomping dads. The Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Tinned Sardine (www.sardinesociety.com), a goofy blog dedicated to the snacky fish, includes reviews of canned brands from around the world – though no mention yet of CRSC.
Area restaurants hip to the trend (including Café Fina, Whaling Station and Trattoria Paradiso) put sardine fillets on the menu when the catch is fresh. But the season is fleeting, at just a few weeks each in July, September and January. The rest of the year, canned and frozen are the only options.
The recent sardine mania parallels the boom-and-bust cycle of the fish itself. Pacific sardines were so abundant in the early 20th century that they spawned Cannery Row, which hit its stinky industrial peak in the 1930s. Then came the sardine crash of the 1950s, thought to be caused by a combination of overfishing and a cyclical cooling of the ocean’s surface.
The fishery picked up again in the 1980s, and bounty in recent years signals a recovery. But sardine population figures are hotly debated, with fishermen putting the estimate higher than national fisheries managers, who set restrictive quotas on the catch.
Pacific sardines are still hauled in by the hundreds of tons at Moss Landing and Monterey harbors, where they fetch 3 to 6 cents per pound. “That is cheaper than dirt,” says Kenneth Coale, director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. “It encourages high-volume harvesting of a species that also has an important place in the food chain.”
More than 90 percent of locally caught sardines are shipped overseas and used for bait, farmed fish feed and pet food. But MLML is working on a plan to reintroduce sardines to the American palate, allowing fishermen to make a better living while catching less.
Coale says CRSC’s product is exactly what the market, and the ocean environment, need. “If they can command $7 for a tin of sardines, then we ought to be able to pay fishermen more,” he says. “They fish less, burn less fuel, and we don’t have to ship it overseas.”
But Karen Carlson, a Panetta Institute graduate who wrote a policy paper on federal sardine management, says domestic canning is a hard sell. The small, soft and oily fish is cheap at the dock, but more labor-intensive to process than chunky tuna and salmon.
“It’s difficult for U.S. manufacturers to compete,” Carlson says. “Most of our sardines are shipped to the Phillipines, canned and shipped back. Unless more people get into sardines for domestic use, they’ll be up against difficulties with [labor] costs.”
None of this is new to the Sardinistas, a conspiracy of sustainability operating out of Monterey. Commercial fisherman David Crabbe, Sea Studios Executive Director Mark Shelley, Center for the Future of the Oceans Director Mike Sutton and entrepreneur Scott Hennessy have launched a campaign to yuppify the sardine; think Sideways-inspired wine soirees, with oily appetizers.
“The mission is to return the Pacific sardine to the American palate,” Sutton says. “[CRSC] is symptomatic that there’s a huge opportunity here. The local flavor of this is just fantastic.”