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Charming Cans Of Cockles, Tiny Tins Of Trout: A Tinned Seafood Wave Hits LA

A colorful assortment of tinned seafood, with red square tins and open tins of salmon, surrounded by grapes, tomatoes, on a mirrored background
The L.A.-based tinned fish company, Fishwife, sells an assortment of canned fish goodies, including smoked salmon, trout and tuna
( Stephanie Gonot
/
Courtesy of Fishwife)
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You may not think of tinned seafood as a gastronomic delicacy, but it’s a longtime staple in countries such Spain and Portugal (where it’s known as conservas). These marine tidbits have now started popping up on the menus of L.A. restaurants; spots like Silver Lake’s Rápido and the newly-minted DTLA bar Kippered boast platters of multi-colored tins lined up beside crusty baguettes and hefty pours of fine wine.

"The first thing that's important to note is this is not StarKist canned tuna," said Los Angeles Times food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson.

This tinned fish exists on an entirely different plane — it can be grilled, fried, or smoked, and it’s often anointed with piquant flavors like tomatoes, piquillo peppers and lemon juice. And it’s not just “fish” as you know it — we’re talking octopus, squid, mussels and a variety of other surprising marine offerings, marinated and sealed in delicate cans.

Peterson theorizes the local fish boom goes hand in hand with the rise of natural wine in the city.

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“When people are drinking more wine, it stands to reason that you will also need more wine snacks,” said Peterson. “Things like tinned fish go wonderfully with wine.”

He guesses the pandemic had a hand in the shift, too. Peterson says as people sought out more shelf-stable items and restaurants started selling specialty goods, tinned fish swam off the shelves and into people’s pantries. And some of it might still be sitting there: tinned fish can last on the shelf for up to five years.

Peterson acknowledges a crucial third aspect to the rise: part of the tinned-fish embrace comes from a kind of romance.

"Who among us, especially over the last two years, has not dreamed of moving to a Mediterranean island and sitting outside playing backgammon with our friends and eating tinned fish all day?” he said. “It's a kind of wishful lifestyle."

An assortment of raspberries, tinned fish, grapes, olives, half a baguette and bread with jam.
The founders of Fishwife said no American tinned seafood brand "spoke to the enthusiasm."
(Courtesy Stephanie Gonot)

It's that lifestyle that got Becca Millstein — who co-founded LA-based tinned fish company Fishwife with her friend Caroline Goldfarb — interested in the hustle.

After a trip to Spain, Millstein became entranced by the culture around conservas.

"Seeing these gorgeous stores with shelves upon shelves of really exuberant, artful, tinned seafood packages…that culture just is entirely distinct from the bastardization of canned seafood that has existed in the U.S," she said.

Millstein calls Fishwife “a COVID baby.” That's because, while working from home, Millstein and Goldfarb found themselves eating a lot of tinned seafood, and on myriad days filled with Zoom calls and general pandemic malaise, tinned fish was something to get excited about.

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“We basically recognized... that there was no American tinned seafood brand that in any way spoke to the enthusiasm that we felt bubbling around seafood,” said Millstein. They got to work and launched Fishwife in December of 2020.

Just opening up a tin of fish encourages storytelling.

— Lydia Clarke of Kippered

Lydia Clarke, who opened the new tin-centric bar Kippered with Reed Herrick in late April, says the pandemic similarly inspired her. Clarke has amassed a menagerie of tinned fish from her travels, and during the pandemic, she started diving into the collection, luxuriating in the memories each can conjured.

“Just opening up a tin of fish encourages storytelling,” says Clarke.

These nights of “tin dinners” inspired Clarke and Herrick to launch Kippered. Clarke paints quite the dionysian picture: people sitting at adjacent tables “splashing” each other with wine, “ripping open tins,” and trading opinions on barnacles (yes, you can really eat them).

Clarke says that the fun part is the constant rotation of new fish, and, of course, introducing people who may have some preconceptions about the stink level of the food.

Fishwife’s Becca Millstein says that due to historic marginalization in U.S. food culture, there’s a kind of “countercultural” element to tinned fish.

But there’s one conversation she’s tired of having: “I cannot tell you how many conversations I've had where someone is telling me they're one of those ‘weird people’ that loves sardines,” she says. “I feel very confident in saying it is definitely not weird to like sardines.”

So pop a cork, peel open a can, and let yourself be swept away by a European fantasy — and, while you’re at it, couldn't hurt to work on your backgammon game.

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