Remember When Tinned Fish Was 'Hot Girl Food'?
Weird, all this sudden attention paid to tinned fish, right? But it's probably here to stay
We’re featuring Jason Wilson today, author of the newsletter, “Everyday Drinking,” one of the 11 recipients of the Substack Food Fellowship, here. We encourage you to subscribe to these publications, as they’re some of the best food newsletters around.
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Remember last summer when tinned fish was declared “hot girl food”? That was in a Nylon article about Fishwife, an of-the-moment company that sells high-quality, ethically-sourced seafood in brightly colored tins and with a cool brand story. “Tinned fish is the ultimate hot girl food,” said Caroline Goldfarb, one of Fishwife’s founders. “There is no food that will make you hotter than tinned fish. Straight up. Do you know a hot girl who doesn’t exist on protein? I don’t.”
Nylon’s was only one of many trend pieces about tinned fish that we saw during the pandemic. Vogue called tinned fish “stylish.” The New York Times and Vanity Fair, of course, weighed in. New York magazine devoted an article about how to eat tinned fish. Cans of tuna, trout, mussels, and razor clams started making regular appearances on influential Instagram accounts. A newsletter devoted to tinned seafood, Popping Tins, was even launched in 2021.
So weird, all this sudden attention paid to tinned fish, right? Yes, by any objective measure it was odd. Soon enough, more articles appeared, all trying to make sense of the trend. Vice asked an obvious question: “Why Is Tinned Fish Hot Girl Food?” Meanwhile, Refinery29 looked at how “tinned fish took over the internet.” Critics pondered: Did the trend start because of Alison Roman’s famed shallot pasta, the Times’ top recipe of 2020, which called for opening a can of anchovy filets? Or did its roots stretch back further, to Anthony Bourdain eating it in Spain? Or was it simply that people had been stuck inside due to the pandemic, and good-quality tinned fish seemed like something “new” and different to try?
The most convoluted reason given for the craze was by Refinery29, which pointed to the rise of travel to Portugal, “where in the last five years, it seems like everyone you follow on Instagram has gone.” One trend-spotter was quoted as saying, “By traveling into this culture, Americans were learning how to eat tinned fish in a new way.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ridiculous answer is the one that resonated most with me.
Now, do not worry. I’m not going to play the role of that annoying food writer guy—the one who always hovers around these conversations, the one who blithely tells you, “Oh yes, I’ve always enjoyed tinned fish. Of course, I call them…conservas.” And yet, throughout the first decade of the 2000s, I did spend a good deal of time in Portugal, and I did eat my share of tinned fish.
Portugal and Spain, of course, are the tinned seafood capitals of the world. The quality of fresh seafood that gets canned, within hours of being caught. For people in more repressed cultures who grew up eating low-quality sardines and canned tuna (and keeping it quiet as sort of their gross little secret) seeing just how conservas are coveted on the Iberian peninsula is eye-opening and freeing.
I remember an early assignment about Lisbon for a travel magazine in the spring of 2000. The story was full of elements that seem almost cliché now: azulejos, the mournful sounds of fado in tiny bars late at night, sipping a sour-cherry-flavored spirit at the hole-in-the-wall ginjinha bars downtown, the smells of sardines grilling in the open air along narrow, cobblestone streets. The city has changed so much in 20 years, gentrifying and evolving into a tourism magnet. But one traditional stop, Conserveira de Lisboa, a 90-year-old store that sells tinned seafood, still exists in a little corner of the downtown.
Those trips Portugal as a younger man also coincided with my early forays into wine drinking, and the Portuguese wine I feel the most nostalgia for is vinho verde, which I’ll admit I consumed like water, along with the sardines, mussels, clams, and bacalao.
Vinho verde means “green wine,” but the term refers to a young wine from northern Portugal, bottled slight fizzy and released usually 3 to 6 months after harvest, and generally consumed young as well. Vinho verde is usually a blend of white grapes, but it can also be red or rosé. The historic region is Minho, the northern coastal province (where the Vinho Verde denomination has existed since 1908). Minho is “green” Portugal, with a wet climate where seafood is king. One of the main grapes here is alvarinho—the same grape as albariño, as it’s more famously called across the border in Spain. While vinho verde is often a single variety, you’ll also often find arinto and loureiro in the blends.
I don’t know that I’ve ever written about vinho verde, because honestly, there isn’t that much to say. It’s crisp, spritzy, a little fruity, usually relatively low in alcohol (generally around 11% abv or below). Most of the time, you drink it on a hot day without even thinking about food, much like a gin and tonic. It’s certainly the most inexpensive wine I buy, usually for under $10. Actually, for much less than $10 most of the time. It’s not a bad idea to keep a volume of it around in the summer.
If we’re being completely honest, there’s not a lot of variation between most of the common brands. Not that people aren’t trying to make vinho verde more premium. I just saw a wine personality on Instagram pitching a webinar about vinho verde in which he says, “Now, you might be familiar with vinho verde of the past as a light wine that’s slightly sparkling. The days of those vinho verdes are gone. It is now a very serious category of wine.” Ehhhhh, I don’t know about that.
I have my favorites. For instance, if I can find it, I’ll choose Muralhas de Monção (with its ubiquitous orange label picturing a stone wall and archway), produced in vinho verde’s best subregion Monção e Melgão. I bought it recently for $8.99. Muralhas de Monção’s best attribute is its reliability, with light effervescence, notes of green apple, pink grapefruit, and blossoms, along with an subtle underlying texture that’s reminiscent of Muscadet or txakoli. I also like the “crab wine,” Caves Messias’ Santola—super refreshing, super low alcohol, super crushable—which you can always find for under $10. The ubiquitious, bright, and juicy (and always under $10) Broadbent vinho verde is another solid pick.
If you’re someone who absolutely needs to spend more money on a wine, I can also recommend the Quinta de Soalheiro Alvarinho, which you will find for around $18. I cannot help you if you want to spend more than that on vinho verde.
On a recent afternoon during our Iberian-like heat wave, I figured it was time for a hot-girl summer moment. I gathered up all the top-quality tinned seafood I could find at my local stores: mussels in pickled sauce from Spain; trout with dill from Canada; and wild-caught mackerel filets and codfish from Portugal, each packed in olive oil. Along with those tins, and a sleeve of Saltine crackers, I popped opened up a few chilled vinho verdes, Muralhas de Monção among them. The crisp, fizzy vinho verde was the perfect, cleansing match for the oily, pungent fish.
As I sweated away on my muggy patio, stuffing my face with mussels and mackerel on crackers —- and washing it down with cheap vinho verde — I can report that I still don’t understand how or why tinned fish is hot girl food. But it was delicious and made me miss Portugal very much.