Flavor Fishing

To Anchovies

by Katherine Perry

To Anchovies

Lena Gustafson

People talk a lot about balance in cooking. The right amount of acid and salt, fat and sugar, softness and crunch, resistance and give. I think of it causing a very light confusion of the mouth and mind, a soothing little mystery, a non-jarring excitement. You don’t exactly know why you like it, and you don’t need to. This food is “tasteful”, presumably created by someone with “good taste”. When food, or things in general, are out of balance, too dramatic, too much of anything, it is upsetting, as indicated by the wrinkled nose, the crinkled eye, the cringing mouth. This food is generally just called “bad”. I know the difference between these two things. I like good, balanced food, I understand the concept of nuance and can execute it to an acceptable degree. But I get good taste fatigue. Subtlety is not lost on me, but sometimes I do tell it I thought I saw a baby otter in the basement, then prop a chair against the door. Because sometimes I want my food to taste eye-rolling, face-contortingly, wackadoo. Wildly unbalanced. And this is why I so love and admire anchovies.They can play it both ways.

I am, in fact, speaking of regular, canned, supermarket anchovy fillets. Fresh anchovies, or piquant Boquerones, those get enough praise. Canned anchovies are tiny fish, which appear to be made of equal parts salt, unimaginably pungent oil, and tiny hair-like bones. Yet, in small amounts the anchovy is the ultimate secret ingredient. Melted in tomato, butter or wine sauces, whisked in dressings and dips, pulsed into pestos and tapenades, it disappears, leaving no fishy trace, just an unidentifiable depth, a mystery best left unsolved. That is the elegant side of anchovies, the one everyone is willing to praise in the full light of the sun. But I am also here to sing its dark, oily, unnervingly crunchy powers.

Splayed on pizza, pressed in paninis, or lurking, battered and fried, in salads; truthfully, it doesn’t really matter. For all you will taste is anchovy as its aroma fills your throat and nose, and its salt burns your tongue. And if you like that sort of thing, you will love it. A few years ago, as I was re-entering the cooking industry I grew to more than love it. I grew to need it. Maybe it was some kind of palate laziness or a buildup of flavor tolerance, but I became an umami junkie. Working in the kitchen when I was first to arrive, I would make myself a hot anchovy sandwich with pickled red onions, aioli, sauerkraut. At the end of the day, while most of my co-workers would go home wailing that it was all they could do to stomach an undressed greens salad, sprinkled with just a few pyramids of Maldon, I would go home and crack open a fresh can of ‘chovies, blot them with some towels, wrap them in a tortilla and wolf them down like Gollum. When I left, my chef gave me a tin of very fancy anchovies as a parting gift.

Luckily, I became a vegetarian. I do not know how it would have ended otherwise. But I find others ways to get a break from moderation. At the end of some days of creating pleasing food, I want to go home and pour vinegar on my endive, top it with capers, and drink it down with a Belgian quad. It doesn’t always have to be about good taste, or even tasting good, sometimes it’s just about wanting to taste so much.