We call them 'mulies' where I come from. These particular fish are my formative experience as a worker, when I dropped out of school and the folks packed me off to the fish factory. I think they reasoned that hosing rotten mulies out from under brine tanks would make me question my footloose tendancies and send me hightailing it back to the comfort of the English Lit, Social Studies, Algebra and Art.
Not so. I fell in with the lot whose Tshirt sleeves were squared with packets of winnie blue, who smoked joints in the car park at lunch time and brawled over errant husbands and wives. I loved it. (Well, Mum and Dad did say uni was too expensive.) I loved seeing the salmon fishers come in with their trucks full of fish seined straight off the beach. I loved working at that cold factory on the channel where the southerly blew straight from Antarctica to my spot at the the conveyor belt. We waited in our woollies for the mulie fishers to come in with their bounty. At 11pm the women working in the vegetable section brought us ice cream containers of hot par-fried potato chips. Salted. I think those partially raw potato chips were the best meals I've ever eaten in my life.
In 2008, a few weeks before my mate Bob died, he said to me, "I've been cooking up mulies for Bobcat. I buy them in the bait section, rinse them, wipe off the scales with my fingers and cook them real quick, add a bit of gelatine and give her this kind of beautiful sardine brawn." I only realised later that he was giving me instructions on how to nourish the black cat he was bequeathing me. "She really loves it," he said gently.
Ebby has thrived and grown glossy and fat from my work as a fisherwoman but lately we've had to buy fish. Today I saw a bag of mulies in the supermarket pet food freezer that looked remarkably, really, fucking yummy. I've spent enough time in fish factories and on commercial boats to know which fish have been handled badly - the bruised, the inedible and nothing but bait fish - and which ones will be good fodder for us bipeds.
This bag of bait looked particularly tasty so I bought them, took them home, filleted them and salted them down. I'm wondering now if you pickle sardines the same way as I pickle herring every year. Any ideas or old family secrets you are willing to impart?
(And the cat? She's pretty happy.)