• ,

Food Porn Friday: all the little fishies

Whole fried anchovies, head-on, with chipotle mayo and pickled peppers

Whole fried anchovies, heads-on, with chipotle mayo and pickled peppers

It is an often posited theory that, as we age, our palettes mature, and where once we found a food or beverage horrifyingly displeasurable - even if only in thought - we might find that we come to tolerate or even love that same thing when we get a bit longer in the tooth (so to speak). I can corroborate this personally. In fact, I am a walking, talking, and most importantly eating, testament to this phenomenon.

When I was a kid, the mere suggestion of a Brussels sprout would make me gag. It didn't help that my father called them "Martian heads" seeing as they resemble the oblong craniums of extraterrestrials in 1950's B movies, minus the facial features. This both amused and disguested me and my brothers. Also, my mother boiled them, which everyone knows is perhaps the single worst way to prepare Brussels sprouts. These days, I very much enjoy Brussels sprouts, either roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper and a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar (not that this makes them look any less like alien heads, even when halved), or shaved raw on a mandoline into a salad with red onions and good Pecorino Romano. As a kid, I despised anything that came within an arms length of a mushroom. Today, the more fungi the merrier. And I don't think we need to get into the pleasures of cheese so stinky it smells like a Frenchman's decomposing armpit.

But there's one particular foodstuff that has always seemed to be the sine qua non of foods that kids deplore: little fishies.

Particularly, anchovies and sardines. These were the butt of many a joke whenever someone needed a food that sounded gross, especially when it came to pizza. As a kid, the suggestion of adding briny, oily little fish to an otherwise perfectly good pizza was akin to garnishing it with a nice dead baby possum or maybe a fistful of plump insect larvae, fit only for a quick, nauseating trip to the dumpster. Or better yet, to an incinerator, where we would be assured that this foul thing couldn't poison any of us. Under no circumstances was that going in my mouth, that was certain. You couldn't even order anchovies on "your half" of the pie, for fear of cross-contamination, and presumably a very painful toxic death shortly thereafter. You'd just as soon spoon-feed me botulism laced with anthrax and sprinkled with typhus, as far as I was concerned. Anchovies, I was convinced, has no earthly business being anywhere remotely near a pizza. It wasn't food. It was an agent of biological warfare.

Now that I'm well into my adult years, of course I absolutely adore the little suckers. Discovering this took me a bit by surprise, as you might imagine. One day I had that immature notion of equating anchovies with poison, and the next, I'm eating them straight out of a jar. And yes, even on pizza. A note for you anchovy pizza lovers out there like me: eat it or chuck it, but never save anchovy slices for more than a couple of hours. By the following day, the fish oil will seep into the cheese and make the entire slice taste like a fish tank. (Not that I've ever, you know, tasted a fish tank. Give me a little credit.)

One of my all-time favorite preparations for whole anchovies came from the geniuses behind a place in Brooklyn called "Bon Chovie." These folks bread and deep fry their "chovies" and serve them with a chipotle aioli for dipping and a garnish of pickled peppers. When asked if I wanted "head on" or "heads off," I responded in feigned shock. "Well, yes, of course I want the heads on," I say. "This is even a question? I'm paying for the heads, aren't I? GIVE ME MY HEADS, DAMN YOU!" (*shakes fists menacingly*). Seriously, though, if you're buying whole fried anchovies and you're too squeamish to eat the heads, you probably have no business buying whole fried anchovies in the first place.

Unfortunately, anchovies and sardines aren't as popular as other types of fishy fare here in New Orleans, likely owing to the fact that they aren't part of our beloved indiginous seafood culture in this part of the country. Still, you don't have to look too far to find you little fish fix. Most great respectable pizza spots in town offer an anchovy option, my favorite these days being at Domenica and PIZZA Domenica. Anchovies on a classic French nicoise salad at places like Tartine are a must. On the more exotic side, there's the "bagoong fried rice" Milkfish, a beloved Filipino dish made with fish paste. Sounds weird, I know, but trust me, it's the fish-bomb. And, rumor has it that the "secret" French speakeasy shop in the Bywater N7 serves authentic French anchovies in their own cans. Leave it up to Bywater hipsters to make tinned fish trendy, but hey, I love it all the same.

The only thing I truly find myself pining for in New Orleans, when it comes to the delights of little fishies, is a sardine banh mi sandwich. With all of the Vietnamese eateries and sandwich counters in the 504, you'd think at least one of them would have a classic sardine version, the fish slathered on the baguette in an deeply aromatic tomato sauce, but alas, if it exists in New Orleans, I have yet to find it.

I'll keep looking for that sardine banh mi, but in the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy and relish all the boquerones and salads nicoise and anchovy pizzas that would have made my younger self gag in disgust. That said, you can keep your boiled Martian heads. I've had more than enough for a lifetime.


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.