There are far more oysters in the Pacific Northwest than there are intrepid eaters who've chanced eating the bivalves raw. Despite our region's global reputation as an epicenter of oyster culture, raw oysters remain on many local eaters' never-tried lists. In this occasional series, Voracious takes on those lists, asking experts how first-timers should approach relatively common foods that give them the willies. Rather than probe the finer points of exotic offal appreciation, we'll uncover what makes mayonnaise, oozy cheese, and oysters so repugnant to otherwise adventurous eaters--and how they can summon the nerve to take just one bite.
When I was very young, one of my favorite games was Silly Sandwich, a vintage 1975 Milton Bradley classic (actually, I have no idea whether the game was popular anywhere but my house, but it should have been a classic). The goal was to construct the zaniest possible sandwich from a collection of cardboard cutouts. You could make a ketchup and mushroom sandwich! Or a turnip and olive sandwich! But the win almost always went to whichever player was quickest to grab the sardine.
Whether paired with peanut butter, hot dogs, or cheese, sardines always seemed pretty gross. I didn't encounter a real sardine until I was in my teens (my mother is allergic to fish and shellfish, which is why I still consider tuna salad a luxury item), but I was certain my anti-sardine position was justified.
I was wrong about sardines, of course. The slick fish are delicious--rich in omega-3 fatty acids and packed with vitamins B and D. Plus, they've been blessed by sustainable-seafood experts. I always keep a few tins at work for at-desk lunches.
But plenty of eaters still think sardines are as ewww-worthy as a sandwich piled with cardboard ice cream, pears, and pickles. Dozens of people at a recent Slow Food event raised their hands when chef and cooking instructor Becky Selengut asked who didn't like sardines.
"Sardines have a terrible reputation," she said. "They taste damn good if you have an open mind."
Sardines have a tendency to go bad quickly because of their high fat content, but a fresh sardine should taste oily and clean. "It's one of my favorite things to eat," she said. "One of the biggest myths is that sustainable seafood is too expensive. Right there, I'd point to the lowly sardine."
Selengut prides herself on converting sardine skeptics, many of whom haven't tried the fish in decades. "I just put notches in my kitchen," she says of the eaters who became fans under her tutelage.
When approaching a sardine for the first time, sugar and alcohol are allies, Selengut says. A recipe in her book Good Fish calls for currants and gin.
"I get them drunk and add copious amounts of caramelized onions," she confides.
The combination's irresistible, Selengut claims. Fortunately, sardines are also very, very cheap.