In Praise of the Sardine

herring net
"The Herring Net" (1885) Winslow Homer

by Brooke Chilvers

When my darling niece and her sweetheart’s family begged us to take them on safari, I said they had to pass the Sardine Test first. Simply put: If you don’t eat tinned sardines, you cannot come with us to Africa.  

Africa can be complicated. Sardines are simple. Breakdowns, driving distances, the time it takes to skin a buffalo – and everyone’s hungry. Easy. Open a tin of sardines. Slice up an onion, or dig out the hot sauce or ketchup. Soak up the oil with the increasingly stale bread, or add broken-up crackers, and you’re done. Omega-3s notwithstanding. 

No sardines. No Africa. And no France, for that matter, because I love grilled fresh sardines in summer. 

“The Burial of the Sardine,” Francisco Goya

There are gold sardines on my cooking apron, and colorful ones on the patio table placemats, as well as my favorite serving platter; and I am currently contemplating purchasing a gouache of sardines on Etsy.

The kids passed the fishy test. (I never told them there was a tinned-mackerel test, too.) They got engaged in a hot-air balloon over the Namib Desert. And got married in our backyard in France.  

My own love affair with sardines started with a month-long camping trip in Newfoundland in 1977, in search of willow and rock ptarmigan, and black-backed woodpecker for our Life Lists.  There was no such thing as a supermarket then, just a few country stores. It was pretty much pilchards — an older, larger sardine — or nothing.  

In fact, it was during that adventure that I created two gourmet recipes for which I take full credit.  They have also helped out in Africa before the first fresh meat is killed:  “Gros Morne Mix” combines the canned creamed macaroni that was standard in those days with canned Vienna sausages.  Delicious.  “Labrador Twist” merges a big can of cheese (or even beef) ravioli and a tin of tuna fish; or better yet, sardines.  Voila! 

“Les Sardines,” Pierre Bonnard

All this talk of sardines led to my new cookbook, The Magic of Tinned Fish. Unfortunately, neither tuna nor salmon is included (my husband loves my fish cakes). But there’s an interesting “ersatz” vitello tonnato using roast pork and a sauce concocted from mackerel and anchovy filets. Just like the authors promised, between the freezer and the pantry, I could invite dinner guests without shopping.  

Then I Googled “famous paintings of sardines,” extending it to include herring, which are just older and bigger sardines.  

Of course, although no sardines are depicted, the most famous work is Francisco Goya’s large, unsettling painting from the 1810s, The Burial of the Sardine, in which frenzied masqueraders celebrate the end of Lent and invite symbolic rebirthing through the ceremonial burying of a sardine. It’s a ritual still practiced today.   

Two works by Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) feature cozy, friendly, bourgeois bowls of sardines. Still Life of Sardines in a Ceramic Dish on a Table describes the painting pretty well. The artist’s view from above heightens the yellows and reds of the tablecloth that are picked up by the fresh slimy fishes. Bonnard’s brightly colored Les Sardines makes me want to peel garlic and start up the grill. It makes me yearn for summer repasts.  

“Still Life of Sardines in a Ceramic Dish on a Table,” Pierre Bonnard

Chaim Soutine’s (1893–1943) monotone canvas of three sad herrings does not. Still Life with Herrings (1916) feels like the meager fare of a lonely, expatriate Belarussian Jew in Paris, whose closest friend was the equally crushed-by-life Amedeo Modigliani. 

“Still Life with Herrings” (1916) Chaim Soutine

Although Soutine often painted food, it reeks of scarcity and struggles; there is no Dutch Golden Age abundance here. The German occupation of Paris in 1940 forced Soutine to move from place to place on a forged passport. Stressed, hidden, and uncared for, he died of a perforated stomach ulcer.  

Even Picasso (1881– 1973) must have liked sardines, for in 1948 he produced an edition of 200 Three Sardines Ceramic earthenware rectangular platters, painted in brown, blue, and tan. I wish I had one.  

“Three Sardines Ceramic” (1948) Pablo Picasso

Having not found too many sardine portraits, I turned to sardine and herring fishing, and found two paintings whose contrast is so great it says almost everything we need to know about fishing austere New England and the sunny coast of France.  

Winslow Homer’s The Herring Net (1885) portrays the age-old struggle between the working man and the forces of nature, as his roughly dressed fishermen labor in the rough-and-tough weather and seas off Prouts Neck, Maine.

“Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio, Opus 221” (1891) Paul Signac

Paris-born and Mediterranean-loving artist Paul Signac’s very large 1891 painting Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio, Opus 221 was made while sailing his 11-metre yacht, Olympia, around the rocky western capes of Brittany, from Roscoff to the peaceful ports of Concarneau. Here, the large sardine-fishing fleet is set almost in the background, the blue waters aflame from the warming sunset. I can almost hear the artist’s absinthe glass tinkling as he paints, while the tiny slivers of fishermen in the yellowing distance pour their day’s-end chouchen (apple mead). 


Brooke leaves her desk now to prepare the delicious-sounding smoked oyster spread from her new cookbook.