this post is about sardines and I’m going to dedicate it to my friend Deloris because its all her fault. Here I am: supposed to be working on my post about The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden, or my post about recent visits to museums and instead I’m writing about…. sardines.

Since September of 2014, Deloris and I have been volunteers with Working in the Schools (WITS) kindergarten program, which means that every Tuesday morning during the school year Deloris drives over to collect me and we go to Dulles Elementary School to read one-on-one with four kindergarteners, each. It’s very rewarding, fun, occasionally germy. By this time of year the kids have worn certain storybooks thin – Pete the Cat – by James Dean, for instance – and have come a long way from listening while we read to them. Now they want to do some chatting. They want to know if I have baby sister at home like they do? They want to make sure their new shoes don’t go unnoticed. They want to take over some of the reading of the books.

The child who listened while you did all of the reading back in September is now ready to loudly and proudly get through a couple of sentences with confident gusto before being met with some big and unfamiliar words. Rather than break up that good reading flow to accommodate the imposter word, some students just start riffing, improvising. It’s fun to witness, and, [to me] suggests some positive developmental processes going on:

*reading comprehension
*reading illustrations
*active collaborative imagination

You don’t have to be a jazz-lover to love witnessing this happen. Instead of focusing on correcting the student, I like to affirm their story-making instinct by exploring their ideas, first. Afterall, isn’t reading a collaboration between writer and reader?

But to return to….

Last week I jumped in Deloris’s car while juggling two warm, eggy, buttery homemade popovers in a sheet of paper towel.
“Want one?” I asked.
“No thanks,” she barely glanced at my food. “I had some fruit and sardines for breakfast.”
“Hm.” was all I could manage. My mouth was full and I was wondering about sardines as breakfast food.
“They’re supposed to be a good source of Omega-3s.” she offered.
“Oh! Mmmhmm. Did you eat them with bread or straight out of the tin?”
“Out of the tin. I ate them with crackers.”

So the very next morning I reached way into the back of my kitchen cupboard behind a can of cannellini beans, two boxes of pasta, some stale panko breadcrumbs, and a jar of capers to locate a package of sardines that I bought several months ago. The expiration date wasn’t until 2017. I turned the package over to read the following boast:

“….sardines provide more calcium and phosphorus than milk, more iron than spinach, more potassium than coconut water and bananas and as much protein as steak. One can….contains 313mg EPA and 688mg DHA Omega 3 and is an ample source of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and selenium.”    (Learn about EPA and DHA by clicking here.)

today's inspiration: sardines! (photo by Leslie Reese)
today’s inspiration: sardines! (photo by Leslie Reese)

All of those health benefits made me want to eat some right away! My lip curled involuntarily as I peeled back the lid of the tin and and gazed upon the little dead oily fishes inside. I tried to remember the last time I ate some.

It must have been a summer in the 1970s when my grandmother purchased a large forest-green tent that my dad and uncles pitched in her backyard one weekend. At night the adults took their plates of barbecue, their drinks, their decks of cards, their signifying skills and a radio out into the tent while me and my sisters were banished to the upstairs bedroom in the back of the house. My sisters fell hard to sleep but I lay there fuming in the dark, sure that I had been unfairly excluded from what I imagined was going to be a late night slumber party in the backyard.

After a while I got up and padded furtively down the stairs and into the kitchen where my grandmother was running water from the faucet into a tea kettle.

“What’s the matter?” she inquired, but I couldn’t answer her with words because she wasn’t the bad guy: it had been my mother who seemed happy to send us to bed without even bothering to tuck us in.

“Can’t sleep?” asked my grandmother. I shook my head no. Maybe if I stood by the back screen door like a puppy she would know that I wanted to go out.

“Are you hungry?” I wasn’t but I could pretend to have an appetite if it meant having a legitimate excuse not to return to bed.

My grandmother disappeared through a doorway where a small chain that I couldn’t reach turned on the single light bulb that lit-up the pantry to reveal its mustard-colored shelves and cabinets covered with yellowed floral contact paper.

Meanwhile I tried to peer through the screen door into the nighttime backyard to see what the adults were doing. Were they using curse words? Were they eating buttered-pecan ice cream? Were they slow-dancing?

(At that time I was growing increasingly nosy and cunning, investigating the differences between what adults and kids did for “play.”)

“Would you like a sardine sandwich?” asked my grandmother. I nodded my head even though I didn’t know the first thing about sardines.


Today’s sardines aren’t as memorable but I love the little tear that whets the corner of my eye as I chew, remembering how I sat at the table with my grandmother so long ago. How she planted the sandwich on a plate in front of me without cutting it in half – which somehow made it seem less childlike to me; how she prepared a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar for each of us; how she sat and chatted with me as if my conversation was interesting and important.

And I can’t quite remember what happened afterward; only that my hankering to be a part of the tent-party dissipated; that I returned to bed willingly, contentedly.

Do you have any sardine stories? Or do you remember any special one-on-one time you had with an adult when you were a child?

Out of curiosity I searched for books with the word sardine in the title.
Here are two written with children in mind:

Sardines of Love by Zurine Aguirre
Arlene Sardine by Chris Raschka

And two (amended August 30, 2016 with the addition of Golden Sardine) for adults:
Sardines by Nuruddin Farah and Golden Sardine by Bob Kaufman.

Have you read any of these? I haven’t.
**Looking for some sardine recipes? Check out this link.


  1. Oh this is lovely! These moments between grandparent and grandchild need to be recorded and treasured like gems. I was blessed to have four grandparents until I was 13; my children only have one. I learned to play cards, where my laugh comes from, my family past, and how music not only fills the air, but fills us with memory. So I try to make sure my children get as many chances to make memories with their grandmother as possible. There’s no memory like it.

    1. Thank you, Jean! This was one of my favorite posts to write. Your comment reminds me that everybody doesn’t get to make memories with a grandparent. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing stories for the young people in our family, especially since they are growing up – like your children – with only one grandparent; and also a great-grandmother [who has dementia]. Our relationships with family elders are indeed irreplaceable.

  2. What an enchanting tale! One day we’ll cross paths and I’ll cook fresh sardines for you – a completely different flavour and texture (and aroma) to those from tin. Amazing now much food and memory are intertwined; Proust was definitely onto something.

  3. Ah, the memories that sardines evoke. 😉 Love ’em. You’re right. They’re super good for you, and easy to whip up into a dish.

    Fun post, Leslie, and thanks for sharing those related books. Will check out the one for grownups.

    1. “Ah, the memories that sardines evoke.” Indeed! Maybe I should edit an anthology of them!? Nuruddin Farah’s book is part of a trilogy that I am curious to read. Thank you for stopping by to read, Nadine.

  4. Lol! First thing that came to my head when I saw the title of this post is the go-go song “Sardines, yeah, and pork and beans” by the Junkyard Band.
    I love sardines and eat them every now and then. I prefer them straight from the can and I prefer them to tuna, which I hate. My sardine story: When I first moved to America I lived only with my father and I was worried because it was my first time living solely with one of my parents and I doubted that fathers knew how to cook. I was glad to be proven wrong on that doubt. For one of the breakfasts he cooked me and my sis, he made a sardine omelet, which I was wary of at first because who have ever heard of a sardine omelet! And I was convinced fathers are weirdos in the kitchen. Eventually I took a tentative bite and it tasted so good that I ate the whole thing but picked out all the onions. I hate those.

    1. Hi Zezee – thank you of bringing some music to this Sardine Appreciation Fest! Your sardine story is a good one and when I read that you found the onions more objectionable than the sardines in the omelet that your father prepared, I laughed aloud! I happen to love omelets so I may have to experiment….

  5. What a lovely Sardine story! Mine is more horror since my mom, a total fan of all kinds of fish, put them on pizza when I was a kid and the shock to my taste buds when I was expecting cheese and spinach. I’ve mostly stopped folding pizza slices since 😀
    But I have lovely memories of my grandma and the smell of cinnamon. She put it into basically everything!
    I get my good fats from oils and avocados and such. Love to start the day with it in bread.

    1. No….no….I don’t think sardine flavor is a good one to be surprised by….and on pizza no less! Cinnamon! Reminds me of eating cinnamon toast for breakfast. I wonder what memories would be resurrected if I fixed myself some this week? Thank you for reading, and eating avocados, Bina!

  6. Confession: When I was a kid, I’d see men working in the neighborhood and when they’d take their lunch break, they would eat sardines out of the can, coupled with soda crackers.
    (saltines- we called them soda crackers in Georgia at that time.)
    I figured they were poor so I associated sardines with “poor folks.”
    Anyway, years later, I realized they were eating healthy food while I thought less of them.
    (I think their eating out of the can is what got to me, so I ask for forgiveness.)
    Now I love them, especially the ones soaking in a sauce, not oil.

    1. Hi Mama V!
      Thank you for visiting my blog! So…what it is it about certain humble foods – or the way they are introduced at different periods in different times that makes us associate food and other things with socio-economic status? Crazy…but these days when we watch food shows on the Food Network and elsewhere, the code word for homey foods/homey eating/unrefined eating is “rustic”….these topics and perspectives warrant their own post!

  7. What a delightful post. 🙂
    I have never been a fan of sardines, especially now that I don’t eat any kind of meat. And I balked a little at the image of something eaten out of the tin! haha. But I’m glad they bring you such fond memories. The smell of certain Mexican foods brings memories of my childhood as well. I am not very good at cooking, and certainly can’t cook traditional Mexican food like my mom, but when I go visit and take in the smells of her kitchen, I’m suddenly transported.

    1. Glad you got some delight from this post, Naz. I don’t know what it is about food that can automatically “take me back” to spaces, places, people, and times. It’s funny that you mention about eating things out of tins because my first draft included a rambling section about attitudes toward eating “proteins” preserved in tins. When you eat your mother’s food do you ever want to “cheat” and eat the meat dishes as well?

  8. I finally found time to read this post and I loved this story! This is too cute. The book recs and the link to sardine recipes are the cherries on top of this story for me!
    I don’t have any sardine stories. In fact, I don’t like them very much… I had some last Sunday with my dinner of fried yams and grounded pepper w/ baked beans, but the sardines were my least favorite. I think its the bones that irk me :(. Anyways, thanks for this post! It was written so well. I hope you post more stories for us!

    1. Darkowaa – I’m so glad you made the time to read this post – its one of those that “showed-up” while I was planning to write and post something else entirely; and I loved putting it together! I think that the yams you eat in your country are different from the yams we eat in the states so I’m curious about the combined flavors of the dinner you had last Sunday. I’ve never had sardines for dinner, but I plan to try one or two of the recipes from the link. Thank you for encouraging my story writing – stay tuned! xo

  9. Leslie, this is so good at bringing memories back that my “sardine stories” — such a great term — are all jamming up in my fingers, waiting to get out. I’ll tell those later, I guess. but I just want to pass along my thanks and my congratulations at being so good at evoking memories, stories and love of words — from the kids and from your readers here.

    1. Thank you very much, Margaret – so glad to have helped evoke your own memories, but, doggone it! I asked for sardine stories! The thought that you have MORE THAN ONE sardine story intrigues me to no end! Thanks for reading.

      1. You’re so welcome. First and fastest of the sardine stories is a shortbread story, just to keep the alliteration active. My family’s Scottish shortbread recipe really comes from my Scottish grandmother’s family, who had several bakeries, so I feel it like a responsibility. My Dad and I say we can feel “our” shortbread recipe — not just taste it — because it has rice flour in it as well as wheat flour. Hard to find, tough to beat! I can hear my mother’s descriptions and directions when I’m baking it, which (you’ll remember) is a good trick.

        1. Where are the sardines?! Nevertheless, I smell wonderful aromas of shortbread cooking and look forward to reading a detailed version of your story in the future.

  10. What a great story! I’m sitting in the library trying not to laugh out loud at the first part cause, well, I would’ve wondered why someone would give her child sardines for breakfast too. But the remainder was really heartwarming. As for your question, I used to LOVE sardines. They got me through undergrad, bones and all 🙂

  11. Leslie,
    Great story and memories! I’m reminded of the fun I had reading with my two sons. At first, reading to them and later, my sons reading to me. Growing up, my Dad worked the afternoon shift and I was supposed to be in bed when he arrived home. I used to pretend to be asleep so my mother would go to bed. I’d wait until my Dad came home and sneak to the door to greet him. He always ate a snack and watched a little TV before going to bed. His favorite snack…sardines and crackers. And he shared them with me.

    1. Is that you, Russell, who I went to school with?! I’m so tickled that you visited my blog and could relate to all the elements of this post: from reading with your sons to remembering the special sardines-and-late-nights with your own dad. I love that your sons get to have early-reading-with-dad memories. Thank you for warming my heart, today!

  12. I loved reading this! You’re a great story teller, Leslie. Those children are lucky! I felt the joy you were describing in seeing the children’s reading skills develop. Lovely memory with your grandmother too!

  13. such a beautiful story! I don’t have any sardine stories, but Gayl Jones’ novel, The Healing, begins with the main character eating sardines out of a can and with mustard sauce. The book was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the title of your post.

    1. I’m glad that you appreciated the story, Stephanie! It’s been a long time since I’ve read the work of Gayl Jones and I never did read The Healing but now I want to. Thank you for visiting (come back, now, ya hear?!)

  14. Les – I heard you’re even supposed to eat the bones of those tiny fish (she says while wrinkling her nose). I dunno, but those health claims may make it worth it.

    1. Ah….the wrinkling-nose-effect – lol! For my 2nd tin I made a little remoulade with a veganaise base to which I added dried dill, cayenne pepper, fresh lemon juice, finely chopped red onion, and a bit of sweet relish. I smeared that on some crackers and lay the sardines on top. yummy!

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