January 10, 2002
"Welcome home, Marlene. It's about time you joined my family," my father said.
He was greeting the news that well into the age of wisdom, I've finally begun eating sardines.
Dad eats sardines the way I once ate rugelah or eggplant parmigiana -- with gusto. It's a way of life for him. He has definite opinions and recommendations.
"Try it with cream cheese," he declared. "On a cracker or on rye bread. Delicious."
My brother was startled to learn that this part of our family heritage had missed me.
"Sardines with mustard," he dreamed. "I hang out by the sardine section of the market." Then he hesitated. "Maybe it's a male thing."
But no, my mother, too, loves sardines. "Get them in oil. Don't bother with the ones packed in water," she said. Her favorite is a sardine salad, not a sandwich. With a strong onion.
So this is how I made my journey home, back to the food of my fathers and mothers. My sugarless diet, low on animal fats, has its compensations.
My acupuncturist, Kenako, inspired the switch to tiny fish.
He felt my feet one day, months after chemotherapy, and declared them cold.
"Sardines," he recommended, though he generally prefers a macrobiotic diet. "Full of calcium. You can eat the bones."
He touched my toes, and I flinched. My thoughts about sardines are, well, cramped into a tiny can. It's taken a while just to unpack them.
The truth is, I'm a food snob. For a long time I didn't eat anything I didn't grow myself. I worshiped at the altar of "fresh" -- as in "free range" chicken, "dolphin-safe tuna" and "live" yeasty bread.
Sardines are the opposite of everything I wanted. Safe. Predictable. Nourishing. Canned.
This, of course, is what made them perfect for Jews on the run.
"My father bought them by the box for us. I never had to worry what to eat," recalled Mom.
The tin -- about the size of a PalmPilot -- could be slipped into a vest pocket and eaten for lunch. They're easy to hand out to huge groups of refugees. They're full of protein -- one can equals half the FDA recommended daily allowance -- which is why they're still on the list of recommended foods to send to the Jews of Cuba.
For those who keep kosher, sardines are safe. They fall under that rare category of foods prepared by non-Jews that Jews are permitted to eat. This is a complex category, involving questions of trust, and whether eating such foods leads to intermarriage. Many European Torah scholars and great tzaddikim ate sardines that were prepared by gentiles. That's how much they love their fish.
I was a rebellious American teenager, watching my parents eat their lunch of sardines. It was poor man's food. Immigrant food. Food of the ghetto. I wanted nothing to do with it.
And I guess I'm not alone. Joan Nathan, whose commendable "Jewish Cooking in America," waxes poetic on kichel, kreplach and kugel, says not a word on sardines. Herring, she goes on for pages. But not a whiff as to the generational battle raging between those who eat it with hard-boiled egg, celery and mayo versus, say, the hipper set cooking sardines with raisins and pine nuts over pasta. On sardines, all is silence.
I can guess why. Everything about them reeks of both pride and insecurity, the terrible/great instincts of the Jewish past. Sardines stank of the czar, and before the czar, of the Spanish Inquisition. Not to mention the burden of metaphor, being cramped in cattle cars like sardines.
This was the fish of affliction. Why be reminded that Jews were once on the run, that we were not free as the Alaskan salmon or the Icelandic char?
I banished sardines as the food of desperation.
Kenako, who is treating me for cancer, has no such baggage. Instead of relying on new-fangled antioxidants, just open a can.
Little could he guess at the journey of a soul.
I bought sardines packed in olive oil and a loaf of fresh, whole wheat bread. I smeared the bread with avocado, a wishful attempt to ward off the scent of Ellis Island. I need not have bothered. I opened the can and there it was, 2,000 years of Jewish history, swimming up at me.
There were four plump fish in the can. Not cramped at all. These were the fish that had always been with us, as we fled medieval Spain and during high times in Venice. They were the boxes that came along with the Frisco Kid, when he traveled to the San Francisco during the Gold Rush. This was my history. It was nourishing. It was good.
More to the point, the tiny fish are loaded with everything I need: not only calcium, fiber, vitamins B6, B12 and C, but also iron, magnesium, potassium and the critical nutrients of selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for fighting cancer.
I ate them, bones and all.