Sardine industry shuts down in Maine

A nifty benefit of having a weekly newspaper column is it gives me the ability to reach thousands of readers with wise commentary on earth-shattering issues. Okay, it’s more like whining in print to a few hundred people about something stuck in my craw. But please help me maintain the facade of special planetary influence.

This week’s earth-shattering issue is actually over a month old. But I didn’t have the time until this week to perform the field research necessary to do the topic justice, what with Hensley’s closing, hair color monitoring, IRS woes, and migratory bra strap problems clogging my calendar. So I’ll get to the point.

How many of you were aware that due to severe catch limitations, Maine’s last sardine cannery discontinued packing operations the week of April 15, 2010? Just as I suspected: No one. You must have been even busier than I was to have missed the startling news.

As soon as I heard, I made a mad dash to the nearest grocery store in an attempt to avoid the crowds I was sure would be forming as part of a run on what was soon to be a scarce commodity. Because everyone loves sardines, right?

Prepared to fight my way through fellow sardine lovers with the force of a salmon swimming upstream, I armed myself with the tire iron from the trunk of my car just in case the scene turned ugly and I needed to coax some aging sailor out of his share of the limited loot.

But the canned food aisle of the store was empty except for a stocker replenishing the deviled ham display. Was I too late? Pumped up on adrenaline, I sprinted toward the canned seafood section.

Just as I’d feared, they were out of sardines. Not all the sardines, but the only kind I eat, well used to eat 20 years ago when I couldn’t afford fresh fish and got tired of eating minced fish parts with the word “sticks” as a suffix. Sardines are small members of the herring family. And for the record, I prefer my dead fish swimming in oil, not the more exotic tomato, mustard or hot sauces.

Unwilling to admit defeat, I used an arm of the tire iron to fish around the specialty sauce cans until I located a dusty can of oil-packed sardines hiding behind the rest. It never fails. Do the stockers hide stuff behind there so pathetic people like me can experience the occasional “Eureka!” moment? On second thought, don’t ruin it for me.

I paid $1.19 for the coveted can and carried it carefully home for ceremonious consumption later that night. I decided to pair it with a beer, but seriously lacked the right Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR to the younger readers) or any other pop-top variety. I flirted with breaking into a bottle of  “Bitter Woman” craft brew obtained on a trip to St. Paul, but settled for a lower brow Michelob Pale Ale leftover from a party.

Eschewing the Ritz crackers recommended by a co-worker or the Triscuits my husband placed his canned fish upon when he was in the Army, I popped the can and ate the sardines straight, like a good purist.

To honor family tradition, I should have bought a loaf of white bread and made a sardine sandwich like my dad, the sardine eater in our family, used to. I’d watch in hopeful anticipation there might be a leftover sardine in the can for me, which there always was. And I’d snap it up like a mackerel, along with the father-daughter bonding.

Unfortunately, my nostalgia far exceeded the canned reality, as is often the case.  There were only four largish tails, not the multiple small fish of memory. Packed in today’s nutritionally correct soy oil rather than the used motor oil of my youth, they were also tasteless. But the cat liked them.

Raising my beer, I toasted the unemployed sardine packers and my palate of the past then set to finding a new expression for “packed in like sardines,” which is going the way of “sounding like a broken record.” I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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