In this Food-Stuff essay, Jeffrey Rubel explores three stories of fish preservation, separated by history but bound together by science.
Wind blew across the lake, wrapping the fishermen in a cold gust. The last of the Pleistocene Ice Ages had only just ended, and even the start of spring didn’t thwart the chill, so the fishermen were wrapped tightly in fur pelts, trying to stay warm.
The fishermen pulled out their shovels––wooden paddles––and chose their site, far enough from the lake to prevent rogue waves from entering but close enough to pierce the moist clay. They started digging.
This wasn’t their first pit, nor would it be their last. After hours of labor, they’d dug a trench nearly ten feet long, three feet wide, and a foot deep.
Through the fog, they saw a fishing boat––a wooden tub––returning to shore. As the boat landed, they removed the fishes. Roach. Perch. Pike. One man cut off the fishes’ heads and removed their guts with a slightly sharpened rock. The others grabbed two sealskins, still soft from yesterday’s catch. The seals’ innards had been scraped out, and the blubber sat in a pile, glistening in the afternoon sun. Then, the beheaded fish were lined tip-to-tip within the grayish skins. Over the next few months, the world within the sealskins would transform, becoming acidic, clean, isolated.
The men added blubber to the sealskin pouches, the gelatin filling the crevices between the fish bodies. They then sewed the sealskin packages shut with thin twigs from nearby pines. The blubber prevented the growth of botulism bacteria, protecting the fish in an anaerobic environment.
One dead body filled with many more. But, from this death, life would arise.
The fishermen gently placed the seals in the muddy pit. Any seepage from within would cause an early end not just to the fish but also to any unlucky diner.
Old fish bones—already fermented—were placed in holes alongside the pit and wrapped in an overhanging boar skin. The bones would seed a new generation of microbes, ensuring future success by capitalizing on past energy.
A pile of bark sat next to the pit, stripped from pine trees earlier that day. The fishermen covered their seals with the bark––it’d act as a catalyst, reducing fermentation time and (through methods not entirely known to these ancient Scandinavians) improving the final product.
Then, the fishermen waited.
• • •
She stood at the counter, pulling sprats from her basket. Freshly caught in the English Channel just a few hours prior, the sprats still smelled of the sea: their tiny silver bodies glistened in the daylight peeking through the kitchen window.
She went to the corner of the kitchen and pulled out a book, pages stained and tattered. Published only a few years earlier, Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy had already circulated widely around Great Britain, promising recipes that far exceeded “any thing of the kind yet published.”
She opened to a page visited many times before. “To make anchovies.” She knew the instructions so well the recipe functioned merely as comfort.
As the book sat open, she pulled salts from the cupboard: “Two pounds of common salt, a quarter of a pound of bay-salt, four pounds of salt-petre, two ounces of sal prunella, two penny-worth cochineal.” She ground the mixture in the mortar and pestle, creating a fine powder. The exhaustion of pounding wore on her, but she ignored the pain and thought of what would come: salty anchovies with the welcoming smell of the sea.
She placed a layer of sprats in the stone pot––the same stone pot that, just a few months prior, was filled with last season’s preserves. She covered them with salt until their beady eyes and glistening scales were invisible. Then, another layer of sprats. Followed by a layer of salt. Then sprats. Then salt. Then sprats. Then salt. Until the pot was full.
She looked at her hands, callouses rough from hours of grinding and chopping. Placing her hands on the salt, unable to feel the grains through her toughened hands, she pushed down, compacting the contents. Muffled sounds escaped—the cracking of tiny bones, the squishing of collapsing bodies.
She placed a lid on the pot. “Let them stand for six months,” the recipe instructed, but she knew six months was too short. Alas, the art of cookery was not so plain and simple.
She heaved the pot, placed it in the cupboard, and waited.
• • •
I placed the package on the counter. The only hints of its contents were a few “PERISHABLE” stickers and the blue marlin logo for “allfreshseafood.com.” Two days and several Internet searches for “buy fresh sardines online” earlier, I found myself ordering Whole Portuguese Sardines from one of the few websites that would mail them for a price I could afford. After reading recipes from The Art of Cookery and an article about the earliest evidence of fish fermentation 9,200 years ago in Early Mesolithic Scandinavia (modern day Sweden), I set out to try my own hand at fish preservation.
Perhaps my desire to undertake this project was rooted in scientific exploration. I was a geology major in college (although geology has nothing to do with fish preservation). Or, perhaps my desire to preserve fish was driven by a love of history—a desire to connect with those who came before me.
Honestly, though, I don’t think there was a higher calling or greater reason. I was salting sardines because it sounded fun—some bizarre form of self-indulgence. Because, why not?
And that was how I found myself on my laptop searching for how to order roach, perch, or sprats. But fresh versions of those fish were too difficult to come by (or too expensive), so I settled on Whole Portuguese Sardines, which were––as the website proudly declared––“flown in straight from Europe, [arriving at the] market extremely fresh and ready to sauté or grill.” Or preserve in your kitchen, I thought to myself.
I cut open the package. Another box within. I removed the Styrofoam top of the inner packaging. The smell surrounded me: I imagined myself on a fishing boat, encircled by the decomposing ocean and its salty pungency. I stepped back. I regretted my decision.
Immediately after being caught, fish begin to decompose. They soften as muscle fibers separate from connective tissue. The knots that hold the fish together loosen, and a once-solid animal begins its journey to a smelly pile of soft mush. My fish, with their rotting ocean smell, are approaching this softened point of no return; they were losing their structure to the hand of time, until my own hand stepped in. The slimy scales on their bodies ran smoothly through my fingers: nearly a foot long and close to half a pound each, the silver tube defied my previous conception of sardines.
I took out my recipe. “Blood-Salted Herring” from Leif Mannerström’s Herring. I wanted to be a Mesolithic Scandinavian, digging pits and wrapping fish in sealskin. I wanted to be a Brit, mixing salts in stone jars.
“You may think that salting herring in its blood sounds a little foreign to our modern time, but it is actually the very best means for salting fine fresh herring yourself,” Mannerström’s recipe said in an attempt to comfort. It sounded very foreign. “Salting in its own blood is the salting method that best utilizes the exceptional quality and flavor of herring.” I looked at my sardines––not herring––and smelled their putridness, wondering if I really wanted to utilize their “exceptional quality and flavor.”
Doubts aside, I began. I held one sardine with my left hand and cut it with the knife in my right. My mind flashed back to sixth-grade frog dissection. Tiny rib bones––each no larger than a toothpick—snapped and poked out along the gash I made down the fish’s belly. I needed to find the gills. I cut below the head and opened up the fish. I peered within.
What do gills even look like? I stuck my fingers in the carcass, now stained dark red with dripping blood. The smell grew even more pungent. My fingers searched the cavern. A heart, an intestine, a liver. No gills. I pulled up a picture of fish gills online: bright red and feathery. Quickly realizing I cut too low, I cut again and pulled back the stiff head. I pinched the gills between my fingers, squeezing out more blood as I pulled them out. The head, now mutilated and empty, remained attached to a fish whose innards spilled out of a gash down its abdomen.
I repeated with the five other sardines. Poor sardines. This was not the post-mortem treatment they deserved.
The line of six sardines, open and splattered with dark red blood, sat on a baking sheet. Loose scales were strewn everywhere and a fishy smell engulfed the kitchen. I closed my eyes and imagined being in an eighteenth-century British kitchen or on a Scandinavian lakeshore.
But I wasn’t. I was in a run-down New England kitchen. And I hoped the smell didn’t permeate into my clothing.
I turned on the sink, and I placed one of the sardines under the running water and watched the excess blood flow away. The sardine was transformed from massacred mess into beautiful specimen. I could appreciate the rhythm of the bones and the line of the intestine running down the now-clean body cavity.
I began liberally salting my Tupperware. I took three of the fish and laid them in the bed of salt. The crystals clumped as they hit the wet scales. I kept pouring until the silver of the fish was covered by the white of the salt. I took the remaining fish and placed them on top of their compatriots, dousing them with salt. It looked like a wintery blizzard sweeping across a Scandinavian lake. But it was just a pound of salt dumped on rotting fish in a Tupperware.
Once the lid was secure, I wrapped the container in twine––once, twice, five, ten, twenty times. I kept wrapping until I was confident the contents would stay within. I stared at the fish through the plastic walls: they were squeezed between layers of salt. The silver scales still sparkled.
I placed the Tupperware in my fridge and waited.
• • •
Fish were pressed, enzymes mingled, and water oozed. The moment in history doesn’t change the processes at work.
Roach and perch. Sprats. Rotting sardines. It’s the passing of time that allows these microbial processes to work.
A Mesolithic Scandinavian. A British servant. Me. We are bound together by the same science, the same processes, in our pots, sealskins, and Tupperware.
• • •
Within these containers, new worlds form. Each is unified by the death of harmful microbes, the growth of beneficial ones, and the transformation of fish from raw to preserved. Bacteria are consuming proteins, producing new flavor compounds, and breaking down tough muscle into soft meat. But, each environment is also distinct, defined by its recipe: a layer of seal blubber, a warm cupboard, a cold refrigerator.
The sealskins are bloated, pulling at the seam running down the center. Within, the formation of an acidic, cold cavern prevents decomposition. The environment, now deprived of oxygen, becomes home to Lactobacillales bacteria that thrive. Through lactic fermentation (the same process at work in yogurt and kimchi), these bacteria turn a neutral environment into an acidic one. While the pH drops and harmful bacteria perish, the Lactobacillales flourish, consuming carbohydrates to produce organic acids that protect against spoilage. These bacterial byproducts add flavor and soften the bones. A distinct buttery texture and powerful smell arise.
While the sealskin is housed in cool mud, the stone pot finds itself in a warm cupboard. The cold temperatures of the lakeshore slow microbial activity, freezing harmful bacteria and slowing flavor development. The warm temperatures in the cupboard, coupled with bacterial enzymes, create a complex series of browning reactions that generate aromatic flavor molecules. Fifty-nine of them according to a 1997 study: sixteen aldehydes, eight esters, and four ketones, among many others. Smells of the earth, of mushroom, of nuts, permeate this microenvironment, ready to engulf anyone who opens the pot. Through the acts of tiny invisible microbes, a simple combination of salt and fish becomes a complex world of flavors, textures, and smells.
My Tupperware, like the stone walls of the British pot, contains a world of salt. While low oxygen drives the change in the sealskins, it is the high salt concentrations in the pot and Tupperware that convert these worlds. Harmful bacteria cannot thrive in these saline conditions because the salt pulls water from their cells, causing them to implode. The tightly bunched proteins in the fish’s muscle cells separate, turning stiff meat into something soft. The natural enzymes in the intestines break free. The fish begins to eat itself. Enzymes destroy cells, releasing flavors by breaking down the proteins of the fresh fish into savory amino acids. One reaction leads to another. Destruction leads to rebirth. And this chemical cascade guides fish from bland flesh to flavorful meal.
In all three vessels, we’re harnessing the power of bacteria, tapping an invisible microbial world to preserve our foods.
We’ve domesticated the invisible. And, even while the recipes for this domestication may differ, we’ve developed microcosms, places where the environment can work with us rather than against us. We see collaboration—the same in all places, in all vessels.
• • •
Impatient, I tried my sardines after two weeks rather than waiting the suggested five.
The sardines were pressed tightly together, taking on geometric forms with strong angles, pushed together by the plastic walls of the Tupperware. The salt was compacted into hard pellets, filling the crevices between the now-deformed fish. Together, they became one impenetrable mass. As I unwound the twine and opened the container, I was greeted by that smell again: wet salt mixed with decomposing flesh, an astringent meatiness.
I peeled a sardine from the mass. It was distorted, contorted to fit the confined space of the Tupperware. I opened up my pocketknife and pushed it through the fish’s skin. The flesh was firm and dry. Decomposition slowed; the fish returned to the stiffness of a wriggling sardine in the ocean.
Once my square of meat was outlined by four deep gashes, I peeled it from the body. At this moment, the Mesolithic Scandinavians would cover their preserved fish in vernix, the waxy coating of a newborn baby deer, to stop fermentation; the British servant would simply eat the anchovies, still dripping with the juices from the jar. I, however, did not have (nor want to have) vernix, and I was too terrified to eat my fish straight. So, after holding the fish under the cold water long enough to lose feeling in my fingers, I placed it in a pan of hot oil on the stove.
The fillet crackled and recoiled, shrunk and browned. After removing the fish from the pan, I placed it on a paper towel, watching pools of oil form. No one could tell this fish spent two weeks in a salt pile in my fridge. It didn’t look special.
I took a bite. Crunchy. Fried. Salty. Very salty. There was no complex flavor profile. A monotonous note of fried salt. It was hard to say what I was hoping it’d taste like, but it did not taste unique. And it did not taste good.
• • •
As the sun set over the lake, the Mesolithic fishermen returned to their clay pits. The birds left the forest, and winter was returning. They cut open the gash sewn shut months before; they removed the roach, the perch, the pike. The townspeople gathered around––the smells of pine, blubber, and microbes permeated the air. Their hopes were high.
But as the fishermen looked inside the seal, they stared aghast at a brownish-green mass. The fish bodies melted together. The ancient Scandinavians realized their mistake: An unsealed hole on the side of the seal. A mistake. Avoidable but now unfixable.
Microbial power couldn’t overcome human error.
• • •
The British servant sliced a loaf of bread and, using a metal spoon, removed one of the anchovies from the stone pot. The fish body was limp, curving on the spoon as its juices dripped into the jar below. She placed the anchovy on the slice of bread and took a bite. The grainy bread contrasted the smooth, slimy fish. But the fish was too soft. Impatience had gotten the best of her. She sealed up the jar and placed it back in the cupboard.
She couldn’t blame Hannah Glasse or the microbes. It was her fault. She opened the jar too soon. She erred.
• • •
Of course, I too had erred. If my sardines were fully preserved, frying wouldn’t be necessary. I could eat the fish without any fear. But I cut too many corners––mail-ordered fish and a shortened preservation time––and I wasn’t daring enough to eat decomposing, partially-preserved sardines.
Perhaps, for the British household, the various salts in the anchovies would’ve added an orchestra of flavors. Perhaps, for the ancient Scandinavians, the seal blubber and pine bark would have imparted some earthy richness onto the fish.
But the ideas I have of past perfections are only fantasies. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to err in preservation. We’re all trying to harness the same power of an invisible world. We’re all hoping some microbes perish, others flourish, and fish are transformed.
• • •
I invited a friend to eat the sardines with me––to test my experiment.
The results weren’t good: My friend got food poisoning. Supposedly she was feeling sick before the sardines but thinks the fish made her illness worse.
I don’t know. Every day while my fish was in the fridge, I’d check it. I’d look through the clear walls of the Tupperware and see the fish squeezed tightly between mounds of salt. Some days, I could see change—liquid pooling on the bottom of the container or salt congealing on the fish scales—but day in day out, there was little to see. Little I could notice, let alone recognize as microbial forces shaping the fish.
It was only when I opened the container, two weeks after I first sealed it, that I saw the now-stiffened fish. It was only then that I could tell something happened. But, even with this final product in my hands, I could only infer what must’ve happened. Because, for two weeks, I only saw the slightest visible cues of an invisible world.
So, I had to put faith in the invisible system. I had to believe the microbes and the salt were working. Perhaps, that system, cut short by my own impatience, let my food-poisoned friend down. Or, perhaps, it didn’t. But, even if it did, I still know the fish were stiffer, drier, and saltier at the end than at the beginning. Something happened. Something that transformed the fish.
Many thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert and Darra Goldstein, two mentors who provided invaluable advice and motivation (and, to Darra, for providing me with my sardine recipe). Thanks as well to my trusted editors: Pierceson Brown, Nicole Tanna, Chinmayi Manjunath, Allison Wu, Peter Luthgart, Eric LeMay, and Emma Zehner for their helpful comments on drafts of this paper. Finally, I am forever indebted to Peter Luthgart and Katie Swoap who risked their lives to taste the fish I fermented in my fridge and survived the awful smell that permeated the kitchen that evening.
Jeffrey Rubel graduated from Williams College in June 2017 where he majored in geosciences and studied food history and culture. His senior thesis, advised by Darra Goldstein, looked at food in retirement homes, while other food-related research included underutilized seafood and the waffle iron in the United States. Outside of food studies, Jeffrey was a teaching assistant in the geosciences department, developed numerous high school outreach programs, and co-chaired the College’s academic policy committee. He is currently Associate Consultant at Bain and Company in Boston and continues to work on food research.