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28 september 2019

Family stories (now known only to myself, and I guess now, for that matter, to you) tell of my early love for sardines. Apparently my grandfather, dead nearly sixty years now, loved when I was a toddler to feed me oily tinned and yellowy smoked fish: sardines, sprats, chubs. There have been epochs since when I barely ate any of these treats, and others where I couldn't seem to go a day without them. Nutritional cravings, cathections, whims? I don't know, but I still associate a can of sardines with unique blissful richness, a combination of working-class everydayness and epicurean decadence that no other food quite affords.

Trevor Day's natural and social history of the sardine, for Reaktion, is strong on the tasty appeal of the fish, but even stronger on the ecological puzzles it presents. The history of sardine fisheries has been a boom-and-bust proposition. It's tempting to connect this to overfishing, which has certainly been a factor, but sardines have probably never been placidly and evenly distributed across the oceans. They shoal in the millions to feed on upwellings of plankton which appear unpredictably, and they attract in turn thousands of predators: bigger fish, birds, mammals, and us. When the plankton crash, so do the sardines, and it isn't always because we take too many.

The social implications of sardine ecology are equally rollercoastery. When the sardine are plentiful, people scramble towards the nearest shores. This is true in tactical terms: on any given day when sardines (or "pilchard" as the Cornish call them) are spotted, in traditional communities like those in Cornwall that Day devotes much time to, activity is frenetic. But it's also true over lifetimes, as those sardine communities glut certain shores and then die back when their prey thins out.

Day looks at many a boom-and-bust sardine area. Cornwall, but also the west of France, Portugal, Morocco, and Namibia. I knew about the last from a food science course I took as an undergraduate in the 1970s. Our professor was a notable expert on global agriculture and food supply. He was so notable that he spent most of the semester touring the world giving invited talks, which left his course in the hands of a graduate student who was writing a dissertation on the Namibian pilchard fishery. This still sounds parodically overspecialized to me, but reading Day's book has given me new respect for Namibian pilchard expertise. The fisheries of southwest Africa have been indicators and monitory examples for the rest of the world, their feast-or-famine tendencies showing us how unstable the apparently limitless supplies of tasty little fish can be.

As with Cornwall and Namibia, so with Cannery Row in California, which Day treats in an extended Steinbeckian section of Sardine. Monterey has been able to pivot from collapsed fishery to literary nostalgia, but many fishing towns have not had their great bards and have not been so lucky.

Despite the dangers of overfishing, Day encourages us to keep eating sardines (and I'm certainly down with that). Because of their gregarious nature, sardine shoals can be seined up without incurring a lot of by-catch. As feeders on plankton, sardines are much more efficient at converting that vast resource directly into us than are larger fish like tuna (which feed on sardines). And because they're smaller and eaten younger than tuna, sardines concentrate less mercury in their bodies. You gotta eat something, and it might as well be a sardine.

Sardines feature in some high and popular culture. Though as Day notes, most great sardine art is only obliquely about the fish. Goya's bizarre Burial of the Sardine shows a festival; canvases by Turner, Signac, and Moser show sardine boats and the people who wait for them. I'd have expected Andy Warhol to be drawn to sardine cans, but he apparently wasn't; the lack of a dominant sardine brand is perhaps why.

No less an auteur than Charlie Chaplin wrote a song about sardines:

Oh for the life of a sardine
That is the life for me
Cavorting and spawning every morning
Under the deep blue sea
To have no fear of a fisherman's net
Sorry, Charlie, that's the whole life of a sardine, "fear of a fisherman's net." But Chaplin wasn't exactly aiming for ethological accuracy. Neither was Robert Service, who stressed the social and romantic aspects of the sardine:
Ah me those days so gay and glad, so full of hope and cheer.
And that little super that we had of tinned sardines and beer.
When you looked so like a little queen with your proud and haughty air,
That I took from the box the last sardine and I twined it in your hair.
Ah, when men were men and knew how to woo.

Toi Derricotte has a pungent poem about her father, sardines, "onions & mustard" which I will let you Google on your own and enjoy. Day cites none of these verses, though he does adduce Robinson Jeffers and Stephen Knight. But he does not mention the highest reach of the sardine into the literary canon, though the sardine in question is unconscious and its beholder, Simon Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses, isn't much more lucid, himself:

Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer.
Molly Bloom thinks of sardines in her final monologue, as well, but the most extended Joycean sardine rapture comes when the revelers converge on the lying-in hospital in the "Oxen of the Sun" sequence, and demand snacks to go with their booze:
And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing without they see it natheless they are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress.
This is what literary theorists term "defamiliarization."

Day, Trevor. Sardine. London: Reaktion, 2018.