It was one of those encounters, like an old enemy you once hated, but had left room to love.
I thought something had been wrong with me. I remember the first time my French grandmother opened up a can of sardines in Poitiers, I was 12 years old. I turned my noise up to them. I thought I could never grow to love such an ingredient, as I easily stuffed my face with the weirdest of other ingredients like frog legs, escargot, and pate. But no, never sardines.
The second time a can of sardines was opened within arm’s reach, I was 18. No matter how much the restaurant could make their case for these little creatures, perfectly stuffed in a tin box, I refused once again.
Was there something wrong with me? Was I really French? The rest of my cultured family seemed to eat them as if they were just another table plate, a part of the meal. I felt excluded, like an outcast, someone who never would truly be French until I, too, could eat sardines.
Fast forward to 8pm on a brisk Thursday evening in Lisbon, Portugal. The final night of what would be an incredible two weeks on the road with a good friend. As we sat down at the first restaurant we ate in Portugal four days prior, a small bar at a local restaurant inside the Time Out market, we went to get our favorites again. On the left side of the menu, something caught my eye. A whole section dedicated to sardines.
As we ordered our regular dishes, I couldn’t help but glance over to the sardine section again. Besides, we were in Portugal, on the coast, the quintessential home of sardines. They have a whole week in the summer where fresh sardines are grilled and the streets ring with music as everyone eats the fresh catch. With a few extra euro in my pocket, I went on a whim and ordered those little suckers, on bread with a minced vegetable topping.
All of our dishes came, sardines as well, and I went straight to my favorites. Like an elephant in the room, I left them in a corner of the table, pretending as if they never had been there to begin with. Eventually I would pull off the bandaid — but what was really 13 years of a nauseating memory.
I went for my first bite, followed by a large gulp of local green wine. I figured it would help. The next bite I summed up the courage to try them without the alcohol. To my surprise, it wasn’t horrible. In fact, it was beautiful. These little sardines, laid out over fresh, local Portuguese bread, with minced carrots, onions, and tomatoes melted seamlessly with each bite. I finished the plate with ease. I have no photos to even show for it, it was that good.
I smiled, thinking to myself, if only my grandparents were here, finally they would know I was truly apart of the family.