"Little Fishes" by Carolyn S. Briggs + Sardine and Avocado Mash


These days, I'm embracing something of a sardine ritual.

It's a weekly ritual, usually on Fridays when I work from home. Monday through Thursday is much less interesting, when I take leftovers from the night before, along with a few snacks to keep me satisfied throughout the day. But on Friday, I eat sardines. Alone.

Sardine and Avocado Mash

Of all the foods my husband willingly tries and and eventually warms to, sardines are not one of them. I've tried. More times than I can count. But eventually, I let go my dream of sharing sardines together and decided to make the eating of them my own little ritual. If you haven't considered them before, sardines are extremely healthy, and these small fish are one the most sustainable in the seafood chain. 

(I'm not the only one who adores them. LA Times food writer Russ Parsons recently dedicated an entire column to these fishes who have "earned their pungent dignity.")

I never thought I'd run across a poem that so beautifully illustrates my relationship with sardines, but this one arrived on my desk during last year's poetry contest. This poem struck a humorous chord with me, because I identified so well with the speaker's partner in the poem, loving them so much I sneak them into the shopping cart two at a time.

Little Fishes

by Carolyn S. Briggs

You love them; I know you
slip them inside the grocery cart
while I stand in the check-out line.
Two tins, sometimes.  Smoked
and plain. The little fishes soak
in a yellow oil bath, their useless
gills parted for air forever,
the last gasp greased in silence.

We carry the groceries
into our bungalow, the upside-down
mortgaged house, built long before
we were born. Windows painted
shut, insulated, and storm-doored,
the peeling sagging cottage
where we couple wearily.

You find your little fishes
at the bottom of the bag.
Every twist of your hand
makes me moan
for the oily bodies lined
up in order, consigned to a tin,
fin upon fin. No hint they once
knew how to swim. Oh, God.

Here comes the stink. 

Poem printed with permission from the author.

Sardine and Avocado Mash

There is a love story here. Also, a story of the struggles our relationships endure, both ordinary and monumental. There are small acts of love, like allowing your partner to slip a tin of sardines into the grocery cart, and larger acts, like riding out the challenges of the "upside-down mortgaged house" and weathering the financial storm that comes with it. 

Sardines are given a hard time at first, noted for their "useless gills," and their sometimes pungent scent, but the sardines "consigned to a tin" bring a lightheartedness to the poem and deflect a difficult situation, which brings us to the true soul of the poem: the speaker has someone to ride out the storm with. I hope each of us is this lucky to find our other half. Someone we can snicker at when they put toss sardines into a shopping basket, and walk home with, and wake up next to even on our darkest days.

Sardine and Avocado Mash


All sardines are not created equal. You might need to try several different brands before settling on your favorite. (I prefer the Wild Planet brand.)

This recipe is nothing but pure simplicity. Add everything to a bowl, then gently mash, lightly season, and spread on your favorite crackers. But it's the act of creating this meal I find most enjoyable. It's a secret little moment just for me, when I find that a drizzle of the very good olive oil is useful, and freshly snipped parsley adds a little brightness.

1 tin of sardines 
1 avocado, cubed
Your best extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
A bit of parsley, chopped
Whole-grain crackers or a sturdy piece of grilled bread

Open the can of sardines and pull each of them out onto a cutting board. Your fingers will get messy, but that's part of the process. Gently slide each sardine open and push out the bone with your thumb. They will easily crumble in places, creating small, meaty pieces; add them to a bowl. Avocado goes next, then a pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper. Next, add a turn of oil, and coax it all together with a fork and a gentle hand. Sprinkle chopped parsley over the top before serving.