I wrote a piece recently for Culture about the current vogue for tinned fish (fancy octopus, smoked oysters, sardines, etc) and how to pair said fish with cheese. I have to admit, if I'm going to eat a tin of sardines for lunch, I might add some shaved parm, but that's as far as I personally want to go in matching these particular items (which is not to say it doesn't work, it's just too much for me and my basic tastebuds).
In the process of writing the piece I got back in the habit of opening a tin of sardines for lunch - usually tossing them into a salad of some kind. Sardines make the best lunch - they're fast, cheap and filling - but they don't weigh you down. I love their meaty, briny flavor - it's perfect against romaine and lots of celery, radishes, parsley, lemon juice, and salt. Add some crackers. Lunch = sorted, with a side of brain fuel and heart protection to boot.
Sardines are stinky though. Every time I open a tin these days, I'm reminded of a scene from a novel called Brown Girl, Brownstones, by Paule Marshall, set in Brooklyn in the early 1940's. A tenant in one of these brownstones, an immigrant from Barbados named Suggie, makes a meal of cuckoo: yellow corn meal with butter and okra. She pours flaked salt cod over the top, and sits on the edge of her bed to eat. Later, another resident of the brownstone is heading out:
"Outside, in the hall, the smell of Suggie's codfish hung in a dead weight, and he hurried downstairs, afraid that the smell would insinuate itself into his clothes and he would carry it with him all night as the indisputable sign that he was Barbadian and a foreigner."
I'm a white lady from Massachusetts. The only thing I have in common with Suggie is that we both like to eat stinky fish. But it makes me think about the way certain foods inspire both pleasure and shame. When I eat tinned fish at home, it makes me happy and satisfied. I recently brought a tin to the office for lunch - not something I'd ordinarily do - and was surprised by how different my experience of eating them was in a more public setting. I hurried through lunch. I obsessively wiped down the counter where I prepared my salad and washed my hands in similar obsessive fashion. Brushed my teeth when I was done. All because I didn't want people to smell my lunch.
Why not? We know food is metaphor - smelly food is an especially potent one. It sets you apart. Despite the fact that tinned fish is all the rage in trendy urban restaurants (where tins of octopus go for well over $20 apiece), there's still a perception that sardines are bait, not food. And bait in a can? Ya suspect. Like it or not, what you eat says something about who you are, what you value. When I pop a tin of sardines, it's a lot about thrift, convenience, and flavor. It's nothing to feel embarrassed about. Right?
But here's the thing. Although I don't want to be the source of off-putting smells, unlike the character above, I'm not worried that my lunch choices - stinky fish, stinky cheese, kimchi, whatever - will underscore my "otherness" - that's part of the unearned privilege of being a white lady. Not everyone gets the same pass.