Quoth Michelangelo: “No anchovies. And I mean no anchovies. You put anchovies on this thing and you’re in big trouble, okay?”
To this admonition of Michelangelo’s (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, not the Renaissance polymath), I credit my twenty-year anchovy boycott—a boycott based on a purely theoretical aversion, as it happens, since I had never come close enough to an anchovy myself to say anything about how they tasted.
One wonders what sort of pizza place the Turtles were ordering from that it required such an emphatic injunction as Michelangelo’s—as if anchovies were as elemental to pizza as cheese or tomato sauce . I don’t think the pizza places I ordered from in suburban Detroit even stocked anchovies, let alone were liable to include them on a pizza without being asked specifically to do so. But that didn’t stop me from aping Michelangelo whenever I ordered delivery from Primo’s, Buddy’s, Hungry Howie’s:
“And hold the anchovies, okay?” I would say, in a tough-guy, vaguely Italian accent. “Seriously, no anchovies. You put anchovies on this thing and I’m never ordering from here again.”
“Got it, kid. No anchovies.”
* * *
I ate my first anchovy in Barcelona, at the food market on Las Ramblas at the age of 26. It was our very first morning in Spain, and Deeva and I were eating lunch at one of those chaotic seafood market-restaurants where you have to elbow your way into a table and then when you finally get one, you linger for hours over plates of bivalves, glasses of beer, and bottomless ashtrays: I believe they exist in the food markets of most coastal European cities. I can’t remember what exactly possessed us to order an appetizer of boquerones—anchovies marinated in vinegar—but we did. I think we’d read that they were a popular dish, and wanted to try them for ourselves. I had become by then, if not an adventurous eater, a more open-minded one. And anyway, these weren’t the little brown smelly salty ones that made Michelangelo wretch. They were white, opaque, the color and texture of cooked sea bream: pretty harmless-looking.
The first bite didn’t convince me. Neither did the second. The taste was acidic, the texture light. Certainly not disgusting. Then we noticed some people at the next table eating their anchovies differently, on small, open-faced sandwiches. The anchovies lay on top of grilled red peppers draped over thin pieces of crusty bread. We had bread at the table, and grilled red peppers too, so we followed suit: now that was something. The sweetness of the red pepper was a nice counterpoint to the acidic marinade, and the crusty bread highlighted the delicate meatiness of the fish.
That night, we recreated the dish at our rented apartment for a pre-dinner tapas. We’d purchased very fresh bread, something with more character than the white baguettes with which the Spanish typically assemble their tapas, and gave each piece a drizzle of olive oil before eating it. They were delicious.
We continued to make these little white anchovy toasts upon our return to New York, usually as dinner itself, not as an appetizer, making little improvements and adjustments each time. Lightly frying the bread in olive oil and garlic before assembling the tapas was one such adjustment. Baking or sautéing thin slices of eggplant, and slipping one under the red pepper, was another. A little piece of Manchego in the mix didn’t hurt either. Yet another modification had to do with the choice of bread. Deeva had always liked that dark, nutty German bread you see in health food stores—square-shaped, heavy as a brick, pre-sliced, sealed in plastic, with a picture of a blond family picnicking in an Alpine meadow on the label—and wanted to try using it with our tapas. I was skeptical and bought some of our usual miche just in case. As it turned out, the dry German bread absorbed the garlicky oil even better than the miche. The result was moist and crispy, sweet, garlicky, a little bitter—perfect.
The only factor limiting the frequency of our consumption of this dish in the months that followed—for every time we had it, we agreed that we would be happy to eat it every single night for the rest of our lives—was the price of the marinated anchovies. The only place we could find them nearby was Marlowe and Daughters, a boutique grocery not known for its competitive pricing. But it turned out marinated anchovies were pretty expensive wherever you bought them, even online. It was Deeva who one day brought home a small glass container of Roland anchovies—the smelly brown ones, packed tightly into glass like a bunch of worms: the ones I’d grown up fearing. My heart sank when she took them out of the bag.
“Let’s just try them,” she said. “They only cost $3.99.”
But I like the white ones, I told her.
“Well, I’m going to try the brown ones.”
Wisely, she’d bought the white ones too, for back-up. I did try the Rolands, and though they weren’t as disgusting as I expected them to be, I thought they were too salty, too fishy to be used on the red pepper toasts. Deeva felt differently. She liked them right away.
In the following weeks, Deeva began using the little brown anchovies in her cooking all the time. She wasn’t being devious; it was only that she had really taken to them, and expected it would be only a matter of time before I did the same. She added them to tomato sauce with capers, garlic and olives—a version of puttanesca—and I had to admit, they were very good. They added intensity to the tomato sauce, and somehow made the dish heartier, more impactful. She put them in tapenade, blending them with briny olives, capers, parsley, garlic and olive oil. She put them in salad dressing, first chopping them finely and then warming them with garlic in olive oil, then whisking in plenty of lemon juice and black pepper: a perfect dressing for arugula, with some parmesan sprinkled on top. Another salad dressing, more French, subbed in Dijon for the lemon juice and added red wine vinegar. For someone who’d grown up believing most salads to be too insubstantial to serve as a meal in themselves, I found the addition of anchovies to a bowl of raw greens a welcome one. Flavor-wise, the impact was subtle, but the overall effect was significant: these salads left me feeling satisfied in a way other salads didn’t.
Soon, Deeva began adding whole anchovies directly to her plates of salad and pasta, no longer hiding them in rich sauces and dressings. I began to do the same, cautiously at first, then with a little more daring, and finally with the zeal of the newly converted. I could no longer deny that the anchovy was a wonder of world cuisine. Far from being something to be afraid of, it was something to get excited about, a promise that food would have flavor, intensity, complexity; that, beyond merely filling you up, it would touch you, make you pay attention.
We became ever bolder in our anchovy use. We laid them whole over mashed avocado on toast. We put them in our chicken marinades, on our schnitzels, over our eggplants parmesan. We ate them with eggs for breakfast, and sometimes for dinner. We even ate them on pizza.
…And the Sardine
My aversion to sardines had been no less strong than the one I’d harbored against anchovies; indeed, it was probably stronger. To me, the sardine seemed to commit all of the alleged crimes of the anchovy (being small, bony, and foul-smelling), combined with those of industrially canned string beans and spam (evocative of war-time rations, not intended for consumption by 21st century humans). Of course, having conquered the anchovy—having been conquered by the anchovy—the first set of prejudices no longer concerned me greatly. But the second still did. When Christopher Wallace (a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G.) rapped, “I used to eat sardines for dinner,” the implication was obvious: eating sardines was not something one did voluntarily. It was something one did because one had no other choice.
But eat them by choice we did. Perhaps it was their taboo, the appeal of a stronger, riskier drug. But it was also a short cooking video I saw in the New York Times featuring Mark Bittman, the cookbook author and food writer. The clip was about a certain pasta dish, pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines, and what intrigued me about it, beyond the use of sardines themselves, was what Bittman called its pre-Columbian provenance. Pre-Columbian: I’d heard the term before, and knew roughly what it meant—relating to the period before the exchange of plants, animals, diseases, etc. set in motion by the European discovery of America—but I’d never heard it used to describe a particular dish. According to Bittman, pasta con le sarde, a popular dish in southern Italy, is made (and has always been made) exclusively with pre-Columbian ingredients: pasta, onions, sardines, capers, fennel fronds, and sometimes currants and breadcrumbs. It turns out that the tomato, that staple of Italian cuisine, is not native to Europe; it didn’t arrive until the 16th century, and didn’t take root in the food of Italy until two hundred years ago. On the other side of billions of pounds of tomatoes and billions of hours spent by proud Italians cooking them down into sauce, there were dishes like pasta con le sarde. It represents a point of contact with an Italy that no longer quite exists.
It was a taste that existed for me, as yet, only in the realm of the imagination. Still, this context helped me to see sardines in a new light, not as a poor man’s protein, but as a jewel of the waters of the ancient Mediterranean. They were extraordinarily healthy too, rich in protein and omega oils, and like anchovies, very low in mercury. They were also abundant, and so could be eaten in good conscience. All of these factors—the historical context, the healthfulness, the environmental considerations—made my taste buds all the more receptive to my first taste of sardine.
The first sardines we bought were Ortiz, the same Spanish brand that produced the white anchovies. They came in a glass jar, their silvery skins shimmering in a bath of golden oil. Their heads and tails were cut off. They were not cheap, as Biggie’s lyric had implied they’d be; they cost around $13 for a cup’s worth. If sardines were the poor man’s protein, these particular ones were the sardines of choice for a poor man who’d come into a lot of money but couldn’t shake the habit.
We prepared the meal almost exactly as Bittman had suggested, but with the addition of chili flakes and a large handful of arugula thrown in at the end for color and a little freshness. We also used—somewhat heretically—a spiral shaped pasta called rotini made out of kamut flour, rather than the usual spaghetti or bucatini. Even more heretically, we topped it off with a little bit of grated pecorino. Justifications abound for the ban on mixing cheese and fish in traditional Italian cookery—religious, health-related, geographic—but as for the one that says cheese overwhelms the delicate flavor of the fish: it isn’t much of an issue when the fish in question is sardines. And for a sardine rookie, the familiar funk of some aged cheese may actually be useful in softening the introduction to a new flavor.
The pasta was delicious. As with anchovies in puttanesca, the sardines in pasta con le sarde get broken down beyond the point of visual recognition, distributing their meaty texture and salinity throughout the dish without overwhelming any particular bite. Together, the sardine and bread crumb takes on a texture and aspect not unlike sausage meat. Set off by springy herbs, arugula, and capers, the overall effect is perfectly balanced between salty (sardines, capers), sourness (capers), and savory/umami (sardines, cheese).
As usual, we began making adjustments to the dish right away.
* * *
There is a book called Golf in the Kingdom in which the main character, a spiritual seeker, meets a sort of mystical golf pro, Shivas Irons, who haunts the old links of Scotland. Shivas claims that in all the millions of golf shots he’s hit, he’s never hit the same one twice. He only ever sets out to hit unique shots, make unique swings. The conditions—the layout of the hole, the wind, the temperature, the length of the grass, the way his body feels in the moment, and a thousand other unaccountable factors—seem to require such tweaks. Most players, of course, don’t see golf that way: the goal instead is always to make one’s best swing, the perfect swing.
I feel the same way about cooking as Shivas does about golf. My goal is rarely, if ever, to replicate exactly what I’ve done before. I want always to tweak things in some way—not because I think it will make the dish objectively better, more perfect, but because it will make it better in this particular moment, make it different, make it novel. That novelty is part of what keeps me engaged meal after meal. There’s also the fact that, in cooking as in golf, no matter how hard one tries to replicate a previous effort, the result will always differ slightly—for better or worse. At Difara Pizza in Midwood Brooklyn, considered by many to serve the definitive best pizza in all of New York, the 80+ year old owner and sole pizzaiolo Domenic Dimarco doesn’t seem to try to make every pizza different, but every pizza inevitably is: sometimes all the pepperonis occupy only one third of the pizza. Sometimes there’s twice as much cheese on one half as the other. Sometimes there’s a ton of freshly cut basil, sometimes there’s only one or two leaves. Perhaps, now that I think about it, Domenic is trying to make each one a little different. How else could he maintain such keen interest in his job after forty years of doing the exact same thing eight hours a day, six days a week?
Those little differences, whether deliberate or not, are what make cooking and eating interesting. They are what make it human. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, so is it impossible to eat the same pizza twice, or take the same bite of a smoked meat sandwich twice, or eat the same grilled fish twice. Even if the pizza, the fish, the sandwich, appear the same, you are not; you’ve evolved. Food is a storehouse of memory, a way of connecting back to earlier places, earlier selves. But rather than asking that food remain always the same, rather than trying to make what we believe is the perfect dish, timeless and unchanging, perhaps we ought to permit our foods to evolve along with us, to reflect our present as well as our past.
* * *
As delicious as the first pasta con sarde was, then, we did not consider its ingredient list definitive. We added wrinkly black olives. We subbed in dill for parsley. We used long spaghetti noodles instead of rotini. We slid an egg yolk into the just-drained pasta to thicken the sauce. We added finely chopped sundried tomatoes, which mimic the texture of currants or raisin but withhold their sweetness. Not infrequently, we’ve even added a few anchovies. The two very small fish don’t fight for primacy; they sing beautiful small fish harmonies. We’ve also added tomato sauce, moving the dish further from its pre-Columbian origins, but toward somewhere inarguably wonderful, somewhere closer to a meaty puttanesca.
I now buy preserved sardines compulsively. It is difficult for me to be in a store that sells decent-looking sardines and not buy them. When I say decent-looking sardines, of course I mean sardines in decent-looking packaging, since you don’t usually see the fish itself through the can. And decent-looking packaging on sardines is very easy to come by: in fact, I would venture to say that, as a category, sardines may have the best packaging design of any foodstuff.
The best fresh sardines I’ve had so far I ate on a beach on the southern coast of Spain, about an hour south of Granada. Deeva and I had flown to Granada from Bordeaux, where we were living, and from there had taken the first train to Algecira, where we boarded a ferry headed for Tangiers, just across the Strait of Gibraltar. Tangiers was meant to be the focal point of the trip. We’d seen the city featured in an Anthony Bourdain show, and the food looked fantastic—particularly the seafood tagine and stewed mountain herbs Bourdain was served at a restaurant called Le Saveur du Poisson. It was that restaurant that had called us to Tangiers. When we finally arrived the city after two days of travel, we learned that Saveur du Poisson was closed for the week, and even after an exhaustive survey of the community, we couldn’t find anything else quite like it. Tangiers seemed to us like a North African Haight Ashbury, on a groggy comedown from the high of its former glory. And like the Haight, it no longer has the distinction of being a place where you can find drugs especially easily: you can find drugs easily everywhere these days. Anyway, the only drug I was really interested in finding was premium grade sardines, and they were nowhere to be found.
We returned to Granada, and stayed for two nights with a beautiful woman in her 50s who lived in a furnished cave carved into a mountainside that was once home to the city’s gitano population. Carmen had thick, long, grey dreadlocks and olive skin. She had two pet rabbits, Yin and Yang, who wandered the neighborhood freely, coming back only when they wanted to eat. Carmen went out one night to a reggae party at 11PM and didn’t come back till 8 the next morning.
She told us about a beach to the south. Maro Beach. She said it was beautiful, quiet, and there was a seafood shack with great, simple food. That’s where I had the sardines.
They were grilled whole, with big crystals of sea salt and lemon juice and olive oil glistening in the midday sun on their blackened skins. We used our fingers to pull the filets from the bones. The flesh was delicate and moist; the skin had the texture of gold leaf, pleasantly papery, flaking in the mouth. There was nothing fishy about the taste or the aroma. It was a very pure, very clean taste. Even as I ate it, I said aloud, to Deeva, this may be the best fish I will ever eat.
* * *
For me, anchovies and sardines really are as good as drugs, or better. Sometimes I can hardly believe they’re legal. Every time I eat one I feel as if I’m doing something forbidden, vulgar, a little bit erotic. I can get high on them. I can almost get high just from looking at them.
Perhaps the hardest little fish drug of all is bagna cauda, literally “hot bath,” a dish from the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy. It is typically made in a small ceramic bowl that is heated over a candle flame. Into the warm bowl, you put a large quantity of olive oil, a larger quantity of minced garlic, and an even larger quantity of finely chopped anchovies. Then, sometimes, for good measure, a fat knob of butter. Once these elements have had time to blend together over the flame, you start dipping things in it, in the manner of fondue: raw bell peppers, celery, fennel, carrot, cold boiled potatoes, cauliflower, artichokes, and bread. Even better, I sometimes think, is to use the bagna cauda as a kind of dressing. My favorite thing is to pour it over steamed asparagus and slices of hardboiled egg, or on salad greens. Taste-wise, bagna cauda is a deeply indulgent dish, with nothing to cut or adulterate the impact of the three ingredients: the sauce equivalent of negroni. Health-wise, you could do far, far worse. Garlic, olive oil and anchovies are exceptionally healthy things, sodium content aside. Plus, bagna cauda tastes best on vegetables, so eating it regularly means you’re likely to increase your intake in that category.
But when I’m eating it, I don’t think much about any of that. I don’t think much about anything at all, except the warm, tingling feeling that starts in my stomach and spreads outwards to my finger tips, my cheeks, my brain. It’s like the feeling of getting into a hot bath.
* * *
I’ve always envied people who can trace their family histories back many generations, who retain something of the lives of their long-gone forebears. Time has washed away the traces of all the ancestors of mine who lived in the nineteenth century and earlier. Even of the more recently departed—my grandparents’ parents, say, born around the turn of the century—I know precious little. The names of the towns where they were born in Belarus, Poland, Romania, Bohemia; the occupations of one or two of the men—cantor, farmer: this much I know, and no more. What were they like? Were they smart? Funny? Melancholic? What were their quirks? What in me do I owe to them? Where did I come from? That, of course, is what one wants to know most of all.
My grandmother was recently up from Boynton Beach for a few days, and my mom suggested we invite her over for lunch. Some people might be intimidated to cook for their grandmothers because they are such good cooks; I was intimidated because I had no idea what my grandmother liked to cook or eat at all. Never once have I seen her in an apron, wielding a knife or greasy wooden spoon. In what few memories I have of her in the kitchen, she is holding a can opener, or a container of non-fat sour cream.
We decided on salade niçoise and rosé, a light and elegant summer lunch to our way of thinking. I knew my mother, who was also joining, would appreciate the gesture. We put out a small dish of Cantabrian anchovies—hard-won specimens from a Spanish importer in Queens—on the side, mostly for ourselves.
My grandmother reached for the anchovies before even picking up her fork. Using her fingers, she lifted a few filets from the dish and draped them artfully over her salad, just as Deeva and I do, if not in polite company.
“You know,” my grandmother began, halfway through a large, anchovy-laced bite, “it’s hard to believe this is the same Brooklyn I grew up in. It took us twenty minutes to find your place. It’s a very hard place to find.”
We sipped rosé and crunched our salads. More anchovies were needed; the dish was empty. I went to refill it with a few more filets. I’d barely set it down on the table when grandma scooped up half its contents and plunked the fish, a little less artfully this time, on top of her remaining salad. Deeva and I exchanged baffled glances.
“You know,” grandma continued, “your aunt Eileen used to live near here. Near the park. But who knows where. I could never find it now.”
We continued sipping, crunching. My mom said how nice it was for us to have them over. The big salad bowl was empty now, and so were our plates.
“I could have a little more,” grandma said, before I had the chance to ask.
Luckily, there was a little more of everything in the kitchen—cooked green beans, potatoes, radishes, tomatoes, olives, tuna, some dressing—so I went to prepare another bowl. This time, I brought back the whole tin of anchovies.
Without missing a beat, grandma picked up the jar and began removing filets one by one with her fingers and setting them down on her plate. The last one she removed she deposited directly in her mouth.
Deeva and I couldn’t help but laugh. My mom started laughing too.
“What is it?” grandma asked.
“I had no idea you liked anchovies so much,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” grandma replied. “Well, I’ll tell you something. You know who liked anchovies? Your great grandfather Morris, my father, who you never met. He loved anchovies so much he never let a meal go by without a jar on the table.”
“Really?!” I said.
“Oh yes. They were his absolute most favorite food.”
That’s an inheritance I’ll be sure not to let slip away.
 Puttanesca is an excellent dish with which to introduce oneself to anchovies, because their slight fishiness is tamped down by the aromas and flavors of garlic and tomato, while their meatiness and funkiness, reminiscent of parmesan, bacon, truffles, etc. remains.
 I haven’t been to DiFara since before the pandemic. From what I hear, Domenic doesn’t come in much anymore, and the pizza isn’t the same.
 Only rarely do we buy sardines in a glass jar these days. The ones that come in glass are indeed almost always exceptionally good, but they can be two or three times as expensive per serving. Our everyday sardines cost between $3 and $5 per can.
Lee Reitelman is a co-founder of PlantPaper, a tree-free, toxin-free toilet paper company. He previously founded Caravan, a farm-based takeaway food shop and catering business in Amagansett, NY, and Herbert, a beverage company based in Toronto. He is the co-author of The Greenhouse Cookbook, and a long-time tutor at Zinc. His music can be heard here and here. He intermittently documents his culinary exploits at @thelittlefishproject.
This essay was written in 2016, and languished on a forgotten laptop until this past fall. Lee is grateful to Dan Waber for the opportunity to publish it.