My dad had a recipe for sardines that was intended to mask most of their smell while not totally diminishing their fishy pungency. He made the dish on intuition, like a hobo, with no official measurements. It went something like this:
• A can of the humble minnows (in plain water, not in oil or mustard)
• Some raw onion, diced
• Some vinegar
• A little salt
• And "more black pepper than you think you can stand."
That last bit of instruction was not to be ignored: After the first four ingredients were in the bowl, he'd forcefully shower the grayish mash with a significant dusting of pepper, to the point where the sneezy condiment was the only visible substance. Then he'd stir it all up and we'd eat it on saltine crackers.
It was totally a Depression-era snack, a way to turn very cheap protein into something zingy. He might've learned it in the Navy, or it might've been passed down through the coal miners and steel workers in the family. I've forgotten those details. Dad, for his part, saw it as a minor test of one's manhood: eat this ... it'll put hair on your chest. And he typically reserved it for times when we were all around the TV, watching sports on the weekend in the dead of winter.
We consumed it during Larry Holmes fights or while watching ABC's Saturday afternoon lineup, which began with professional bowling and ended with "Wide World of Sports." That show, hosted by Jim McKay, was the early booster for the Ironman triathlon, which seemed futuristic and mind-boggling back then.
The February 1982 version of the race was particularly dramatic: Julie Moss, a college student, was leading during the marathon portion. She was a newbie -- a total underdog -- and it was an inspiring moment. Dad, perhaps sensing the drama, made some sardines. We settled in with our fish and crackers to watch the final moments. Moss, looking tiny and vulnerable, was wavering. Her body was rebelling. She collapsed. She stood up again. Her pants were wet. Something dark was running down her leg. As she crawled to the finish, Kathleen McCartney passed her to win the women's division. Moss eventually finished, filthy and dazed. Her effort was a defining moment in sports history. In my house, we looked at each other. We looked down at the sardines. We didn't finish them.
I still make 'em a few times a year, though.
(read the complete and ongoing Secret History here)