Posted by: acooksca | 08/09/2009

Cannery Row Sardines

Cannery Row, 1930s

Cannery Row, 1930s

“Early morning is the time of magic in Cannery Row. In the grey time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended in time in a silvery light. It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”  John Steinbeck: Cannery Row, 1945.

Steinbeck wrote about Monterey’s Cannery Row of the 1930s. It was a foul-smelling street of grating machinery, honky tonks and working class people struggling through tough times in an area of remarkable natural beauty. The Row was vibrant with quirky characters and an enthusiasm for life driven by the pulse of the canneries. Then, the year after Steinbeck’s book was published, the sardine catch began a spectacular downward spiral and within a few years the industry failed.

Early on a recent Saturday morning we slipped into the silent streets of Cannery Row looking for a coffee to start our weekend. It was Steinbeck’s pearl hour…greyish mists softening hard edges of the old cannery buildings… reinvented as restaurants, shops and hotels. We came to see the few original fishermen’s cabins that have been preserved and search for signs pointing out things made famous in Steinbeck’s book. We were also seeking an expert opinion from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to resolve an unsettling claim that the sardines that made Cannery Row famous were not sardines at all.

Monterey Bay has long been renowned for its abundant fishery. In Steinbeck’s time it was one of the most productive in the world due to the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that is funneled to the surface via the vast underwater Monterey Canyon. When Steinbeck wrote the book that brought Monterey’s Cannery Row to world attention, millions of pounds of sardines a year poured into 14 canneries along Ocean View Avenue.

Sardines drove the peninsula’s economy. They were canned for food, pressed for oil and pulverized into fertilizer for the fields. “In the morning when the sardine fleet made a catch, the purse-seiners waddle heavily into the bay blowing their whistles. The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails into the bay. Then from the town pour the Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women in trousers and rubber coats and oilcloth aprons. They come running to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish.” Steinbeck paints this image in his opening pages.

Many of the fishermen and cannery workers were immigrants from Europe. In both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic fishers thrived for thousands of years catching this same fish, known not as sardines but pilchards. Recently I was in a discussion with a food professional when she stated that Monterey really fished pilchards as her grandfather had done in the Mediterranean. In fact when I checked a dozen scientific and commercial websites there was plenty of support for her claim.

The Ocean Oasis Field Guide says the fish known as California Pilchard/Pacific Sardine/ Sardina Monterey ranged from the Gulf of California in the south to southeastern Alaska in the north. “The species was fished to the point of commercial extinction off California…after the 1950s it virtually disappeared from the region.”  Wikipedia claims sardines were named for the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where they were once abundant. And to many a sardine is a young European pilchard, generally under 5-inches in length.

Cannery Row 2009

Cannery Row 2009

I thought the Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in a former sardine cannery in Cannery Row, would know. Jim Covel, Sr. Manager, Guest Experience Training and Interpretation patiently answered my questions about the difference between a California pilchard and a Pacific sardine. “Those are actually both the same fish, formally know as the Pacific sardine, Sardinops sagax.  I think the confusion may be related to the fact that most of the sardine fishery in Monterey Bay involved fishers from Sicily, who were used to fishing for the European pilchard, Sardina pilchardus.  I suspect the common market name of pilchard came to California along with the fishers.”

When asked about the size associated with the larger pilchards. Jim told us “In the early days of the local sardine fishery, the fish were much larger, perhaps up to 15 inches long. As the sardine population experienced heavier fishing pressure, the size began to decline as there were fewer older/larger fish—a good clue that we were taking the fish at an unsustainable level. The “good news” is that Pacific sardines have been managed in a better fashion since their population crash at the end of the 1940’s and they are once again one of the largest commercial fisheries in Monterey Bay.”

Today there is much to go to Cannery Row for. The area surrounding it is a marine sanctuary with coastal walks that are famously lovely. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is not only one of the world’s leading oceanographic research centers but houses mesmerizing attractions for visitors. The Row itself is able to preserve its buildings by turning former canneries into tourist services such as hotels and restaurants…where you are able to experience Jim’s “good news” firsthand. Lunch the day of our visit was grilled local sardines (sometimes called pilchards) with a view of the bay they made famous.


Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey

According to Jim Covel, one of the best and most current resources for fish questions is Fishbase:”

P.S….This appeared in a British article written by Robin Stummer in August, 2003
In a rebranding exercise that would put even the most cunning of Downing Street spin-doctors to shame, the half-forgotten and ever-so-humble pilchard has been rechristened and is now selling by the boat-load. Arise, the Cornish sardine.
This saviour of Cornwall’s faltering economy may be slippery, shiny and about six inches long, but it could hold the key to thousands of new jobs in one of the Britain’s most impoverished regions. But don’t, don’t call it a pilchard.
The fresh Cornish pilchard – sorry, sardine – has fast become one of the most unlikely food retail successes of recent times, having leapt from being the dowdy, tinned meal-of-last-resort of impoverished students to the new darling of Britain’s fresh fish counters.


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