Refinery29 is proud to partner with Primal Kitchen to celebrate the ways in which food and its preparation have helped us find joy in quarantine.
2020 was the year I fell in love with tinned fish.
It all began one afternoon in January — the Before Times, if you will. My girlfriend had just arrived home from London, and she’d requested lunch at Russ & Daughters to mark her return to New York. So, we’d found ourselves seated at a formica table in the famed Jewish dining mainstay, cluttered with all the trappings of a two-person feast: smoked gravlax, salmon roe, crème fraîche, bagels, latkes, and enough coffee to fuel us for days. She’d beamed, scooping up roe and crème fraîche with a cracker and presenting it to me, knowing full well that I found any seafood served out of a metal box to be deeply questionable.
As I’d explained to her on many an occasion, I thought canned tuna looked (and smelled) like cat food. I found the scent of sardines, nesting in their shiny packaging, deeply unnerving. And I was certain that any other variety of tinned fish would give way to similar feelings of revulsion. But upon first bite, my eyes lit up. It was like nothing I’d tasted before: Salty, briney, delicate, sharp. Needless to say, my skepticism had been futile: this was delicious.
And so began my love of tinned fish: I made fresh tuna salad with Primal Kitchen avocado oil mayo for lunch at work, snacked on sardines before dinner, dragged my girlfriend back to Russ & Daughters as often as I could. It became an obsession, a source of daily joy. And then March hit.
Looking back, January 2020 feels like a lifetime ago. In fact, the entire scope of my world looks different now than it did back then. Just months after that fateful meal, COVID cases spiked across the country, shelter-in-place mandates went into effect, I found myself without a job for the first time in my adult life, and my girlfriend received an offer to take a new position over in Seattle. At the time, between our savings, her relocation bonus, and the unemployment I’d begun receiving, we had enough money to support ourselves — a privilege we did not take lightly — so we packed up our Brooklyn apartment and moved west, not knowing what our old stomping grounds would look like the next time we returned.
On the surface, we were moving for my girlfriend’s new job — an opportunity we both agreed she couldn’t miss. But for me, the move signified so much more than that: it was about leaving behind the whole world as I knew it in order to explore a different route. Rather than work full-time on a frenzied New York media schedule, I would have the space to figure out what I actually wanted. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had a sense of agency over the next steps I would take.
By mid-May, flying was still deemed a “high-risk” activity, so, with the help of the security deposit on our former apartment, we split the cost of a used car. We stuffed it with camping gear and christened it with a 2,840-mile drive, spending our nights at a string of campsites along the way — a journey heavily aided by tinned fish. It became a daily occurrence on the road: We had tuna salad for lunch loaded with our beloved avocado oil mayo (one of few things we could whip up with the groceries stuffed in our cooler), and sardines on toast for breakfast. We even made tuna puttanesca one evening when we were nearing the end of our trip, using up the last of the butane gas that was fueling our hot plate. And as we got further from New York and closer to a whole new life, tinned fish began to feel like a preserved, little piece of home.
Before this year, I had never been someone who listed cooking as a hobby. But when we finally arrived at our new spot in Seattle, it became central to my days. We had to wait three weeks for our belongings to catch up with us (they were on a moving truck making its way, very slowly, across the country), so while we waited in our sparsely decorated new home, cooking became a way for me to fill the time. And with few comforts from home available to me, tuna salad (with personal flair) became my hero dish. It was the perfect staple — tasty and filling and easy to make, with just canned tuna, a healthy dose of avocado oil mayo, and a roster of more original touches: capers, apples, celery, ketchup (don't knock it 'til you try it).
Beyond tuna, using tinned fish at large became one of my favorite ways to garnish a sandwich or decorate a cheese plate. It was cheap, versatile, and long-lasting enough to help us limit our trips to the grocery store. And it invited creativity: I topped our salads with melted anchovies and pickled red onions. I added radishes and tinned oysters to “hors d'oeuvres” plates. I knew that, only months ago, I would’ve scoffed at the idea that I would ever claim anchovies tasted like home. But, lo and behold, I’d surprised myself. The sundry item became this eternal reminder that a willingness to embrace newness can be a beautiful thing.
Seattle is not the same city as it was pre-pandemic (and neither is New York). It was nearly impossible to meet new people when we first arrived last June, and many months later, that still holds true. But even now, each time I enter the kitchen — the most well-furnished room in our new place to date — I am reminded of my ability to adapt. Be it a question of new foods, new cities, new hobbies, I can choose to find the pleasure in what is unfamiliar. I can build a home, one sardine tin at time.