Hot Dogs, Sardines and the Return of Blue Collar Food (That Never Really Went Away)

Look delicious, don't they?
In New York yesterday, at our beloved sister paper, the Village Voice, Robert Sietsema ranted briefly about the flim-flammery of modern chefs making some serious bank by cornering the market on the blue collar foods of yesteryear.

"Gradually," he wrote, "restaurants that get noticed in print and in blogs have changed their focus from full-course meals with all the accoutrements, to more fast-food-style, single plate meals. We are currently being bombarded with coverage of hamburgers, pizzas, hot dogs, and sandwiches--things that, five years ago, were below the notice of most gourmands."

Now I've got a minor problem with this conceit right from the start. As a restaurant critic, I suppose I automatically qualify as one of Sietsema's "gourmands," but I can happily state that no hamburger, hot dog, slice of pizza or sandwich has ever fallen below my notice. Much as I do dearly love me some foie gras or duck confit, I have an equal (and in some cases greater) affection for the simple stuff, the low-brow stuff, the uniquely, adoptively American stuff, than I do for eating anything that's going to involve me trading in my blue jeans for a pair of slacks and my fistful of crumpled singles for a gold card. As has always been, ever shall be, is what I'm saying. My love affair with sandwiches has been going on for decades and it will never end.

But I digress...

What Sietsema was getting at in his post was this idea of high-end chefs hijacking the low-brow cuisine that used to feed us all quickly, simply and cheaply, and turning those hot dogs and pizzas into retro fine dining "cuisine." Partially, this is done by trying to make them better (using fancy-pants ingredients, gussying them up with strange, international fusions). Mostly, it's done by jacking the price four or five hundred percent and convincing gullible foodies that while only hobos and factory workers (and certain restaurant critics) would eat a two-buck dirty-water dog from a street cart, it's perfectly slummy-cool for the well-heeled, well-fed and moneyed elite to walk into Bark in Park Slope (or, you know, Po Dog right here in Seattle) and get their tubesteak fix for 30 bucks.

So after reading Sietsema's piece last night, I woke up this morning and heard the story that the last American sardine cannery is closing in Maine. What do these two things have to do with each other? Well let me tell you what they have to do with each other.

Back in the day (meaning back before canned tuna, essentially), canned sardines were a lunch-bucket staple. Sardine canning in the U.S. was huge in the 1940's, peaked in the 50's and then tanked fast with the advent of tuna fish sandwiches, tuna noodle casserole and tuna surprise. All of a sudden, no one wanted to be eating the oily, smelly little fish-in-a-can anymore. And now, thanks to a combination of fishing restrictions and cheap, imported sardines, the American sardine canning industry is no more. The last plant operating (the Stinson Seafood plant in Prospect Harbor, Maine) has been going for more than 100 years. And today, that all ends.

So here's my idea. Of late, following the exact supply/demand/desire arc that Sietsema described in his Village Voice piece, sardines and all manner of other small and stinky fish, have been making appearances on restaurant menus all over the country. Chefs following Spanish or Italian inspirations have added them to appetizer lists. Sprat have become popular again. And with the overwhelming push among chefs and restaurateurs for local product, there is a sudden gap in the market that needs to be filled. What America needs is some smart chef or restaurant operator to open a boutique sardine cannery.

Plans for how to do exactly that are right here on eHow (believe it or not...), and, apparently, all it requires are fish, cans and money. What could be simpler! Also, what with all these retro things like scooters, ridiculous scarves, hats and terrible television shows becoming cool again, what's more retro than having a job in a cannery? You'd get to wear a hard-hat and heavy boots, carry your lunch to work in a bucket... And at the end of the day, all the sardines you can eat!

Somebody should really get on this right now. And when you do, just cut me in for a small share of the profits and we'll be good. There's no need to even send me any of the sardines.

I never really liked the things that much in the first place.

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