Yassifying Tinned Fish

The rich history—and current renaissance—of a pantry staple 

Photography by Emma Meskovic

Be honest: What first comes to mind when you hear the words “tinned fish”? Perhaps a soggy tuna fish sandwich, assembled with globs of mayo and chunks of grayish tuna fished from a watery can? Maybe it conjures the stench of a repressed memory from childhood: scrunching your nose in disapproval as you watched, in horror, as a parent cracked open a tin of sardines? For me, it’s the comedy of an iconic reality TV moment from 2003: Jessica Simpson, famously perplexed by the brand name “Chicken of the Sea,” questioned her then-husband Nick Lachey, “Is this chicken that I have, or is this fish?” as she peered quizzically into her bowl of tuna.

Imagine my surprise when—during a lengthy, absentminded scroll through social media—a video of a gorgeous charcuterie board stopped me in my tracks. I watched, with hungry anticipation, as the creator filled the board with the artistry and precision of a modern-day Michelangelo. Juicy cherry tomatoes, buttered slices of fresh baguette, lush herbs, thoughtfully sliced cheeses, and—wait a minute—did they just add a can of sardines?

After sifting through hashtag after hashtag (#TinnedFish, #TinnedFishDateNight, #CannedSardines, etc.), I realized that something old had, once again, become something new. The vibrant culture of seafood conservas, or “tinned fish,” is experiencing an ascent to popularity that has taken years to perfect.

Chef Nicolas Appert, fittingly nicknamed “The Father of Canning,” began canning fresh seafood in the early 1800s as a way to keep French soldiers nourished during wartime. This innovation sailed beyond French borders, gaining traction in Spain and France, where conservas came to represent the art of preserving the “catch of the day” at its freshest.

From classic tuna to exotic sardines, smoked mussels, and even squid and razor clams, these tinned delicacies now offer a perfectly preserved taste of distant cultures right at home, challenging the notion that they’re merely last-resort pantry fillers.

Months before stumbling onto tinned fish, I had already fallen in love with the social media-endorsed “Girl Dinner”: a meal that forgoes the lengthy execution and dreaded dishwashing associated with traditional dinner preparation. Instead, it consists of “foraging” in your own cupboard to make a meal out of snacks and small bites. (Think dill pickles, a bag of popcorn, chicken nuggets, and a Diet Coke.) 

But I was hungry for a rally behind “Girl Lunch.” I longed for a worthy equivalent to the Girl Dinner that romanticized indulging in the simple and effortless. Luckily, my desire for discovery (and new lunch ideas) yielded results I could sink my teeth into. I was excited to find several local businesses creating waves with the #TinnedFish trend, making my dreams of Girl Lunch a reality.

First, I decided to stop by City & State, a bustling coffee shop and retail boutique nestled comfortably in the Broad Avenue Arts District. A neatly stacked display of Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co. products in their gift shop included options like smoked albacore tuna, Atlantic salmon with Sichuan chili crisp, and Cantabrian anchovies.

But it was the allure of the tins themselves that really got my attention. Katie Wells, general manager, noted that I was like many other customers who were “interested in the specialty presentation of a familiar grocery store item.” Each can, wrapped in playful packaging adorned with vibrant colors and kitschy illustrations, tells a story. 

“Honestly, [Fishwife] is a brand that we ourselves discovered through social media,” said Katie. “We were really drawn to the overall presentation of the brand. They also tick the boxes in a lot of categories we look at when sourcing products: woman-owned, eco-friendly, and made in the USA.” 

The products are versatile too, said Katie, and can help make a quick lunch flavorful, accessible, and healthy. “The anchovies are a staff favorite in pastas and even for homemade Caesar salads,” she said.

Later that day, I assembled my first Girl Lunch with my morning acquisitions. Inspired by the four pillars of cooking (salt, fat, acid, and heat), I savored Fishwife’s smoked rainbow trout, complemented by plain potato chips and a dash of hot sauce.

My next visit was to Bishop, a Southern-influenced French brasserie downtown. Bishop recently began offering lunch service and plans to feature tinned seafood on their new lunch menu. Manager Ingrid Carcamo and chef owners Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman walked me through their current fruits de mer, or “charcuterie of the sea,” offerings. “It’s all about variety and techniques. We have options preserved in olive oil, spicy oil, in brine, or lemon—something for everyone,” said Michael.

While traveling in Europe, Andy and Michael were inspired by the variety of seafood available, and they committed to introducing a broader selection of canned seafood to Memphis. “We fell in love with small bars in France where they offer you local tinned seafood and pair it with a drink or aperitif,” said Michael.

“Seafood sometimes gets a bad rep for not being fresh, but tinned seafood is a great way to preserve and offer fresh seafood.” 

After agonizing over my options (pickled mussels, baby eels, sardines with Espelette) and answering a few questions from the staff to help determine which flavor profile best suited my mood that day, I finally decided on a classic: a French imported tin of tuna in lemon confit. Bishop emphasizes that with this fish’s high-quality ingredients, all you really need to pair it with is “something creamy, something spicy, and something pickled,” said Michael. I was delighted to be presented with my tuna, served on a plate adorned with cornichons, a generous dollop of dijon mustard, a hearty smear of cultured butter, and slices of baguette. 

I ate my way through my plate, sopping up the last bit of lemon confit with my bread. While waiting for my check, I began planning my next Girl Lunch so I could come back to try the razor clams.

Finally, my quest for an omega-3-rich Girl Lunch led me to Buster’s Butcher, a full-service meat and cheese butcher with a jaw-dropping collection of sourced sundries and eclectic pantry staples. Head Butcher Brad McCarley made their conservas collection feel like a food tour, walking me through the flavors and region of each thoughtfully selected brand. 

“Sardinha from Portugal, Lanorval from Spain, Tiny Fish Co. out of Portland, Oregon—these ain’t your grandma’s sardines!” Brad said. “I love the Sardinha sardines in olive oil. Put that on a crusty baguette, drizzle with oil from the can, hit it with lemon juice, and garnish with some chives for brightness. It’s simple and delicious.” 

Feeling educated and motivated by Brad’s insights on the complexities of sardines and saltines, I left with a bag filled with briney delights. My boldest choice? A tin of Lanorval’s octopus in garlic sauce—with plans to pair it with noodles Buster’s sources from Italy.

“Don’t get me wrong. A lot of tinned fish is great as is and can be enjoyed straight from the can, but I think the world really opens up once you start playing around with flavor combinations. Try cooking with it,” Brad encouraged.

Heeding his advice, I crafted a very simple cacio e pepe-style dish (tinned octopus, pepper, cheese, and pasta water). I found myself eagerly watching the clock, counting down the minutes until lunch. Brought back to reality by the sound of my fork scraping against an empty Tupperware, I was astounded. Yes, it was that delicious.

I’ve realized that the renaissance of tinned fish not only revisits a time-honored tradition but also celebrates the joy of discovering flavors from around the globe. These small tins hold much more than fish—they contain stories, art, and a testament to culinary innovation. Make room, Girl Dinner. #TinnedFishGirlLunch has me hooked.

City & State
2625 Broad Avenue
cityandstate.us

Buster’s Butcher
199 South Highland Street
bustersbutcher.com

Bishop
545 South Main Street, Suite 111
bishopmemphis.com

Leah Chaney is a proud 901 native and jack-of-all-trades at Muddy’s Bake Shop. She’s passionate about supporting small businesses, loves gin cocktails, and insists that she knows butter better than anybody. @leahbofeah

Emma Meskovic is a digital content manager, illustrator, and super fan of this publication who loves taking photos of her food. @emmamesk