Fishwife is great, and so are tuna melts

These are unobjectionable assertions of fact.

Lately, I’ve been watching what I eat, which is pretty unusual for me; for most of my life I’ve been alarmingly skinny, and unable to gain weight even when I wanted to. When I got a scale recently to check in on just how much a spare tire I’d picked up since last March, though, I learned that I’m not only bigger than I’d ever thought I’d be, but bigger than I would have thought possible. (Getting older, not leaving your house for a year, and stress-eating and drinking more than you really should adds up, who knew.) I’m not worried about my weight as such—I could be healthy at 140 or 200 pounds, depending on what I was eating and what I was doing exercise-wise—but given that I have a tendency to high blood pressure and was generally really feeling like shit before the gym opened back up, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to consciously remind myself that as well as biscuits and gravy goes with eggs, asparagus with a little olive oil and lemon juice goes pretty well too.

Over the course of the pandemic, one key bad habit I developed was going to Fu-Wah—among other things, all of them good, Cedar Park’s premier sandwich maker—to get massive Italian hoagies dripping with oil and mayo for lunch. It got me out of the house for a bit in the middle of the day, gave me a pretext to spend some time in the park, and eating something like 1000 calories of salt, fat, and carbs released enjoyable chemicals in my brain. As part of my eating-watching, I’ve tried to analyze what I was getting out of worse habits like this so I can swap them out for better ones. Going to the gym or for a bike ride daily is a good way to make sure I’m getting out every day; reading in the park is a good pretext for going to the park for some alone time; and a tuna melt is a great way to eat salt, fat, and carbs and enjoy the consequent release of chemicals in my brain while having a lunch more reasonable than a full-on hoagie.

Tuna melts are true lazy-person food. I take a can of decent supermarket tuna—Wild Planet or Genova brand, say—and smash it up with two and a half tablespoons of Greek yogurt, two chopped green onions, and a heaping half-teaspoon of Old Bay while heating up a big cast iron pan over medium heat for five minutes. Then I take four slices of good bread and brush a bit of butter on one side of each of them and a bit of mustard on the other of two of them, then put a slice of cheddar on each mustard side, put the slices with cheddar on the pan, scoop half the tuna mixture onto each, put on some hot sauce and some pickled onion, cover with the other slices of bread, flip after a couple of minutes once they seem nice and charred and melty, then plate each one alongside a really big pile of vegetables and give one to my kid and wolf the other one myself. It’s a good compromise, in all: This isn’t health food, exactly, but it definitely has its virtues, and there’s certainly nothing particularly deathly about it, even as it’s delicious and hugely satisfying and generally scratches the same itch a cheeseburger from a diner would.

The best tuna melt I’ve made lately came with tuna from Fishwife, a new tinned-seafood concern about which I’ve had some slight hesitations. That’s partly because of how much coverage it’s gotten—the New York Times, Vogue, and Vanity Fair, for instance, have all run flattering stories, while New York had one of its proprietors, a well-known comedian, write a (useful!) guide to things that can make your tinned-seafood eating experience better—and mostly because it’s a direct-to-consumer brand.

I don’t inherently have anything against such brands, but I am skeptical of them. Good ones—there’s a shoe company I could recommend—offer a quality product and a credible explanation of what exactly their deal is. These are rare. Most just pick generic stuff out of catalogues, handwave about cutting out the middleman, and put a lot of effort into associating whatever they’re selling with pleasant imagery and a compelling Brand Story. (Not quite the same thing, but if you want to catch up on a tinned seafood scandal, I highly recommend this excellent article by Janelle Bitker of the San Francisco Chronicle, about a guy who claimed to be raising artisanal sturgeon in Northern California that was a key ingredient in $300-a-plate dishes at fancy restaurants but was in fact just buying generic stuff and relabeling it.)

Fishwife is definitely associated with pleasant imagery and a compelling Brand Story. Its brightly-colored Instagram and website and the lovely boxes in which its tins are packaged and stickers with which they come (one of which is now on my bicycle) cast tinned seafood as a modern and downright sexy thing to eat. The company’s very name—an archaic misogynist insult, repurposed—hints at its story, which involves two women, trapped at home, eating a lot of tinned seafood during the pandemic. As Vogue put it:

The way co-founders Caroline Goldfarb, a TV-comedy writer and co-host of the Glowing Up podcast, and Becca Millstein, an artist community manager at The Rattle Collective, see it, if ever there was a time to embrace tinned seafood, it's now. The idea for Fishwife was born in quarantine, after all.

While in lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, Goldfarb and Millstein were preparing all their food at home; tinned fish became a pillar for many of their best-loved snacks and meals, from sardines on crusty buttered toast and salads to linguine with mussels in an anchovy tomato sauce. One day in May, it occurred to them there was a gap in the American market for affordable, sustainably-caught, and well-branded tinned fish.

Fishwife isn’t particularly affordable—it’s not wildly unaffordable, either, but at $8 per, its tins cost about what high-quality tins cost—and there isn’t really a lack of sustainably-caught tinned seafood on the market. On the branding point, though, the two were absolutely right about gaps in the market. There are cynical and not-cynical ways one could read this, but which is more correct depends on what’s in the tins. So, curious, I ordered three cans of smoked rainbow trout and three of smoked albacore tuna, and happily discovered that there is absolutely no reason to be cynical whatever.

Fishwife’s tuna—“hook-and-line caught in the Northwest Pacific by small boat fishermen,” it asserts—is fantastic, firm and moist and subtly smoked. Within two days of their arrival, three tins were consumed as part of a tuna melt (delicious), as part of a late-night pantry raid carried out by a local tinned-seafood enthusiast (not me, so I can’t say), and on a bagel with cream cheese (again, not by me, so I can’t say, but it looked great). I’d have it on rice with sesame seeds and green onions, flaked over a salad, or pretty much any other way you might might want to have a good piece of tuna. (As wonderful as my tuna melt was, actually, I think that might be the least-good reasonable way to have this—it’s a substantial piece of fish, more akin to something off the grill than to the easily-yielding mass you get in even a good supermarket can, and something that would more than hold up against but not overpower a salad the way a good oil-packed jarred tuna might.)

The trout—“raised in pure Idaho spring water” and “fed a sustainable, nutrient-rich diet”—was even better. I had it on toast and in a three-egg omelette; a local tinned-seafood enthusiast had it on a bagel with cream cheese and wanted more, desperately, leading to a six-tin order. This is a richer and smokier fish than the tuna, and far flakier; it would, again, be ideal for a salad, but I’d definitely recommend it in an omelette or a quick broiler frittata, or even straight from the tin or on crackers. Like the tuna it was packed in just enough liquid to keep it moist, with no excess, which would make it useful in applications where seafood submerged in oil might not be ideal. In the best way, it tastes like eating by a campfire; with my first bite, I was wondering whether I’d ever had trout and fried eggs cooked over an open flame, or was just summoning up some memory from Twain. (It was the latter, which doesn’t seem to matter so much.)

Fishwife is sourcing excellent tinned seafood—a product generally associated with grim Andy Capp types who might otherwise be eating pickled eggs, and to a far lesser extent with foodies talking inaccessibly about their delightful trips to obscure Western European markets—and selling it at a fair price in a way that can appeal to everyone but maybe especially people who might not have the best associations with fish in a can, and maybe especially young women. I’m generally pretty cynical about branding exercises, but evangelizing for tinned seafood by doing something more than shipping plain blue cans to obscure specialty grocers, while selling a product every bit as good as what’s in those cans, strikes me as a fantastic idea. In a Nylon story about the rise of tinned seafood this week, in which I was unaccountably quoted, one of the founders was quoted as such:

“Tinned fish is the ultimate hot girl food,” says Goldfarb. “There is no food that will make you hotter than tinned fish. Straight up.”

I hope they make a billion dollars.

In other tinned seafood news

—A colleague, on reading that I had rhapsodized about the apolitical nature of tinned seafood in Nylon, pointed out the ties between the U.S. tuna-fishing industry and the internment of Japanese citizens, which is a fascinating topic I’ve been reading about and will be writing about here at some point. Something being apolitical in the sense I meant—not reminding you of Matt Gaetz’s dumb face, say—doesn’t mean it isn’t tied up with all sorts of things that are profoundly political, including history and climate science and labor issues. (For all the hype about the glamor and sustainability of tinned seafood, I’m not sure many people reading this would like to work in a factory canning sardines.) These are topics that will be covered here in the future.

—Because I live in a house where only half the members eat seafood, I haven’t used anchovies in pasta sauce in forever, but recently a local tinned-seafood enthusiast obtained some Roland anchovies at the store and asked me to use them, so while finishing this newsletter off I made a giant vat of sauce (this recipe basically) and was reminded how incredibly good they are in sauce—everything you’d want from a meat sauce with rigatoni without having any meat in it.

—I enjoyed flawless sardines today for lunch—La Brújula’s sardines sized 3/4 to a tin, which you can get from Rainbow Tomatoes Garden. They’re not quite as world-destroying as Güeyu Mar’s chargrilled sardine loins, but they’re more easily obtained and notably cheaper, and I cannot imagine the basic workaday sardine being done any better, and they come in a light oil that was amazing over a bunch of asparagus.

—Reader “Drew M.” has been wondering how you open tins without getting oil all over the fucking place. There are three answers. One is to buy newfangled tins like the ones King Oscar and Season are using, which instead of a pull tab have a thin sheet of tin foil on top that’s much more easily pulled back. A second, more realistic one is to accept that popping a tin is going to involve getting some oil all over and plan accordingly. I open mine over a plate on my worktable or in the sink, and make sure not to wear any shirt I couldn’t live with having an oil stain on while popping. A third, seemingly the plan of a local tinned-fish enthusiast of my acquaintance, is to just pop the tins right there on the counter, consume them, and leave the mess for someone else to clean up.

—I’m just a lurker, not a participant in the community, but the Canned Seafood subreddit is really great and I’d recommend checking it out if you haven’t. It seems to entirely consist of people politely and usefully discussing this subject.

—In the last issue, I stupidly blamed the difference in cholesterol between two oyster brands on the oils they were packed in; cholesterol is of course not found in plant foods. I regret the error.