In Search of Savory Sardines

In her perplexity of a puzzling problem, a dear reader acknowledges my erudition in general and asks where she can find long-ago crackers and the delicious sardines she ate upon them in the golden memories of yore.

Dry your tears, dear lady -- all is not irretrievably lost. At least we can come close, which cannot be done with another goody of yore in these callous days of the ''just-as-good-as.''

My friend G. H. Bent, a wholesale baker at the corner of Route 28 and Pleasant Street in Milton, Mass. 02186, will mail common and water crackers, as well as his price list, to qualified buyers. (In the used-car trade, a qualified buyer is anybody who has money.)

Another good provider is Lyman Orton of the Vermont Country Store at Weston, Vt., who boasts in his catalog that he makes old-time country-store commons with the original machine from the Battle of Bennington. (Or maybe it came over on the Mayflower.)

In Vermont history, common crackers were used in the Northeast Kingdom with beaver-tail bouillon. Lyman will send his catalog if you ask; he writes the whole thing himself with a Green Mountain turkey quill pen.

But the sardines call for considerable explaining.

Some two decades ago, a longtime friend came from Maryland to Maine to renew relations. As we sat in reminiscent posture, he said he had found a place where he could get a decent sardine that was almost as good as those he had on common crackers as a boy in the good old days when food was still fit to eat.

He now had a position in Washington with the government with the privilege of shopping at a Post Exchange, and there he had found a sardine of merit -- equal, he thought, to the quality kind packed in Norway for the high-class export trade. These sardines, he said, turned out to be packed in Maine by (he seemed to think) a company named Wyman.

At this, I said, ''Tomorrow we shall take a picnic and drive Down East for the day -- I have a friend in Milbridge who will want to hear you say that.''

The next day, allowing for a beautiful ride along the Maine coast, I took my friend from Maryland into the offices of the Jasper H. Wyman Packing Company to find the president and owner, state Sen. J. Hollis Wyman, waiting for us at his desk, with his somewhat famous sign over his head, ''THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR BLIND LUCK.''

At the time, Senator Wyman dominated the Maine legislative scene, the Maine Wild Blueberry Harvest, and the Down East fish-packing business. My friend from Maryland told him about the PX sardines, and Holly Wyman said, ''It's because Uncle Sam's folks live high off the hog. We could put those PX sardines in any store in the world, but they wouldn't sell at a high price. As long as Uncle Sam pays the difference, buy your sardines at the PX.''

The matter explained, Senator Holly then relaxed and gave my friend from Maryland the $25 lecture about the sardine business. First, our Maine (or East Coast) sardines are herring and run larger than the true sardines picked in Scandinavia. Then, the sauces, condiments, and oils used are different -- predicated not on taste and texture, but on the price per can in the supermarket. And so on, and then Senator Holly told my friend from Maryland about the superfine sardine he once packed that the government p eople wouldn't let him sell.

''I still pack them,'' he said, ''but I can't sell them. I'll give you a case to take home when you go, but they're illegal in the You-Ess-of-Ay.''

''Every spring,'' Holly began, ''the alewives come up our tidal streams to spawn. They're some sort of herring, not much for food because of poor flavor and bones, but the Indians and early settlers netted them and used them as fertilizer or smoked them and used the things for food.

''Smoking helps,'' he continued. ''Good many people along the coast smoke a few for home use and they're known as smokers, bloaters, and Kennebec turkeys.

''I happen to like one now and then with a boiled potato, so I always smoke some for myself and friends but not enough to make a business.

''So one year when the herring came in, I packed a few cases of my best Maine sardines, and I had the girls cut smoked alewives into cubes, and each sardine can got a small square of smoked alewife tucked in with the herring. You wouldn't believe what that did to the flavor.

''I took some to the State House and passed the cans around, and every reaction was good. I did that three seasons, and then I packed enough for the trade and told the salesman to see what happened.

''All that happened was that the Food and Drug boys jumped on me and said I couldn't sell sardines that had alewife aboard. No way to get around that ruling, not with the federal boys, so that's that.

''I've had the boy stick a case of smoked alewife tainted by sardines into your car. Take 'em to Maryland and let me know what you think of the Food and Drug outfit.''

So the lovely perplexed lady who asks will not find Senator Holly's best in her market. It isn't there.

But the folks who now run his plant will tell her what brands she will find, and may even tell her to try the Norwegians.

They're good, too.

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