Chasing the dragon

HIgh-end mussels and low-end mackerel and oysters come under consideration.

Two weeks ago, I had a disappointing tinned seafood experience, albeit one that was entirely my own fault. The idea was to try a very fancy tin and a fancy but less fancy one to see which was better and what, if any, the differences were, so I bought a tin of Conservas Braseadas Güeyu Mar’s chargrilled mussels and one of Patagonia’s smoked mussels and sat down with two good bagels and some good cream cheese, ready to dig in.

Güeyu Mar is a Spanish brand, recently lauded by Bon Appetit and attached to what sounds like a very nice restaurant. What first attracted me to it was the spectacular design of its tin wrappers. (You can see them here and they’re frame-worthy—they actually fold out into squares—assuming you want brightly colored cartoon images of sea creatures suffering for your gustatory pleasure on your wall.) I was also mesmerized by the incredible copy on its website, almost certainly the most over the top copy of any tinned-seafood concern in the world:

When the basis of a project is its passion, it is unlikely to go unnoticed. And behind this project, there is a hungry man. Hunger to do something hitherto unseen. Hunger to reinvent the canning world and change the perception of “eating from tins”.

[…]

The finest seafood are chargrilled, using products of the highest quality which are then canned. A complex and painstaking process, full of searches for marine treasures, patiently awaiting capture before joining the aromas of birch woods, beech, oak and eucalyptus and oils of heavenly textures.

These are bold assertions, but the brand’s chargrilled sardine loins lived up to them. They’re the best tinned seafood I’ve ever had, by a lot, as truly distinct from perfectly fine everyday sardines as a really great bottle of wine is from a Bota Box.

Patagonia, by contrast, while worthy and noble as I far as I know—I’m vaguely under the impression that its founders donate lots of profit to good ends, and its website claims that its new food business is “a matter of human survival”—makes those fleece vests that businessmen inexplicably wear. Nothing particularly attracted me to its tins other than the fact that they cost a third or so what Conservas Güeyu Mar’s do and are widely available at Whole Foods stores. (I was also curious whether they tasted like a fleece vest made, I assume, out of recycled soda bottles.)

Part of the disappointment here was, as you’ll have figured from this setup, that I liked Patagonia’s mussels more. (I would, in fact, unreservedly recommend them.) To my untrained if enthusiastic eye and palate, the Güeyu Mar mussels were of slightly higher quality, and the olive oil in which they were packed certainly was, though I presume that knowing I’d paid three times as much for one as for the other affected this assessment.

What really made the difference was a matter of taste; the fancy mussels were tinned with a sharp pickling agent. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was … distinct. The Patagonia mussels, on the other hand, were tinned with broth, which I’d assume had some liquid smoke in it. (Interesting thing you probably know but that I didn’t until recently—liquid smoke is, literally, liquid smoke, not some chemical agent that happens to taste like smoke.) Another part was that I simply ate too much—two bagels with cream cheese and two tins of mussels is just a lot of food.

The greater part, though, was that I’d expected too much. The quality of Güeyu Mar’s sardine loins had me thinking that I would achieve transcendence here, when what I was doing was eating mussels out of cans because I didn’t particularly feel like cooking. Reasonable expectations are a key to happiness.

All of this inflected my tinned-seafood eating over the last two weeks, which has been much more satisfying, even if it hasn’t involved seafood nearly as good. My problem was that I was chasing the dragon, seeking a perfect high rather than enjoying the ones I was getting. I resolved to stop when I found myself in Maido, a Japanese grocery store and restaurant just outside Philadelphia, and pondering whether to get a tin of J-Basket Saba-Kabayaki Seasoned and Broiled Mackerel for $2. The devil on my shoulder rejected the idea of buying a product that lists sugar as an ingredient, especially when packaged to imply that 3.5 ounces of fish can fill a large dinner plate; the angel on my other shoulder told me not to listen, and much to my benefit I didn’t. Are meaty chunks of mackerel in a thick, almost syrupy sauce the best that the world of tinned seafood has to offer? No, they’re not—and yet, mixed into rice, with some scallions and sesame seeds, they made for a pretty good lunch. (I will, though, caution the squeamish here—while most tinned seafood aside from some lower-grade tuna bears absolutely no resemblance to cat food, even high-end mackerel can.) This good experience in mind, I headed off yesterday to Walmart.

I generally avoid shopping at Walmart for any number of reasons—though not so assiduously that I don’t take advantage of its status as one of the better outdoor-gear suppliers in Philadelphia—but I did want to test my theory, formed eating out of gas stations on bike camping trips, that one of the good things about tinned seafood is that you can get reasonably good stuff pretty much anywhere in America at pretty much any time. This theory was pretty much confirmed.

Walmart, to be sure, had horrors: brislings packaged with a see-through lid that managed to revolt someone who writes a tinned-fish newsletter, enormous cylindrical vats of sardines in tomato sauce, bizarre pouches of shelf-stable flavored tuna salad. But it also had actively good fish: Wild Planet sardines (I prefer the lightly smoked in olive oil) and tuna, which are pretty inexpensive and ubiquitous and shouldn’t for these reasons be considered anything but an excellent choice, not least because the company plausibly claims a commitment to sustainably fishing non-poisonous fish from well-managed waters, as well as Season products, which are slightly further down the hierarchy but will shame no pantry anywhere (and which come packaged in an innovative and mess-free tin featuring a peel-back foil layer rather than a rigid aluminum one, which is worth trying out if for no other reason than to experience a delightful novelty).

It also carried oysters from a variety of lower-end and dubious brands. I bought four tins: One from Chicken of the Sea, one from Bumble Bee, one from Great Value (which I believe to be a store brand), and one from Geisha, which I cannot believe exist and yet have no difficult believing exists.

Will I ever adjust the light over my worktable that I use to take these shots so that it doesn’t reflect on the tins being photographed? Probably not.

There are three problems with tinned oysters, in my experience, one serious and one less so. The least serious one is that they bear less resemblance to their fresh counterpart than any other seafood I can think of: While a sardine in a tin offers a fundamentally different eating experience than a fresh one, it is recognizably a sardine; a tinned oyster, on the other hand, whether from a specialty house or a store brand, is a shriveled protein wad that simply has nothing in common with the (nominally) living creature you eat with lemon. This is something that takes slight adjustment. The less serious one is that they have a ton of cholesterol—up to 47% of daily needs, according to the nutritional information on the packages. (A tin of Wild Planet sardines has 12%, which is just one reason why sardines are recommended for people lifting weights who want lots of cheap protein and oysters are not.) The serious one is that, fancy or not, they do not get packed in olive oil, but in either sunflower oil or cottonseed oil, which can be pretty gross.

The upsides, though, are compelling. Oysters are incredibly cheap (the four tins I bought ranged from $1.23 to $1.98) and have their nutritional virtues. They’re also pretty good, if you go for that sort of thing; salty and smoky and with a firm texture. I like the Trader Joe’s ones every once in a while on Triscuits with hot sauce, which is how I had these.

To my immense surprise, considering that I would be surprised to learn that the three tins packed in cottonseed oil were not farmed and packaged in the same plant, there were notable differences among these tins. The clear loser was Geisha; while the cloying industrial-byproduct smell of its sunflower oil was not quite as horrifying as its atavistic branding, it was still fairly disgusting. Great Value was bland and mushy, while Chicken of the Sea was brackish. Bumble Bee, though, was smoky and satisfying; the entire tin was consumed, and while I wouldn’t disagree with the opinion of a sardine enthusiast who was nearby while I was trying them out and tried one under duress—“It’s okay, I guess,” they said—this isn’t a tin I would hesitate to keep on hand in case of an odd craving, and I’d consider using one with a tin of clams and some tomatoes and aromatics to make an extremely lazy person’s seafood stew on the lines of what Albert Burneko of Defector wrote about in his excellent blog “You Can Always Just Throw Together Some Seafood Stew” the other week. More to the point, though, eating this tin and a blood orange kept me happy for a while while I chopped up some vegetables for vegetable soup for dinner for my family on a chilly evening; it didn’t give me much, but I also didn’t ask or need much, and so everything worked out pretty well. Hope you’re having a great Memorial Day weekend!