Friday, April 19, 2013

Sardines Here, Sardines There!

I love sardines.  I grew up eating sardines, particularly the tinned variety, and loved them.  "Sardines on Toast" was a family favourite.  The tins didn't have a ring-pull like they do now; they had a key and when you wound the key, the metal lid gradually wrapped around itself to open the can and reveal those little silver fish.  We'd put them in a shallow china bowl, mash them up with Heinz Salad Cream, and spread them on toast which we'd pop back under the oven grill and toast until bubbling.  I still eat sardines on toast now though I use mayo if I can't find Salad Cream at the store, and add a teaspoonful of sweet relish to spice it up.  I even introduced my American family to the joys of the dish and they enjoy them to this day!

It's a very good thing I love sardines because there were times when I lived in Tripoli back in the mid-80s that sardines were all we could find to eat.  In early letters from Libya, I tell my family and friends:

"There is nothing to buy here except food, and there is very little food to buy.  Sardines are usually available in tins (tuna-fish too, I'm told, though I haven't seen any yet).  We can't have sardines on toast though because while we can buy bread, we can't make toast as there are no such things as toasters or grills in Tripoli."

A few months later, I share that we (the secretaries) heard a rumor that a little shop on the other side of town had large quantities of sardines so we arranged for Musbah, the AGIP company driver, to take us there after work.  The shopkeeper did indeed have sardines...cases of them just arrived from Russia.  Most cases had already gone but there were a couple left.  However, the Libyan shopkeeper tried to explain with gestures that these were rotten sardines and only fit for animals.  We bought them anyway.  But once opened, we realized he was right.  There was something peculiar about the color and smell.  I tried them out on my cat but even he, a scruffy alley cat of questionable parentage with no palate that ate almost anything, wouldn't touch them.  We had to throw them away.

By the end of my time in north Africa, I'd come to loathe them.  In one letter, I say, "If I ever see another sardine, I shall spit in its eye."  And in another, "If I ever utter the word 'sardine' out loud in a public place, you must shoot me, right there and then."

So here I am in Austin, Texas, playing Mrs. Clackett in Austin Playhouse's production of NOISES OFF in which almost my every other word is "sardine" -- "I've got a nice plate of sardines to put my feet up with," and "Now I've lost the sardines..." and "Sardines here, sardines there."  I stuff sardines down the front of my fellow actress's dress, she stuffs them down mine.  I have them thrown in my hair, my colleagues slip up on piles of them.  Six plates of sardines make their way around the stage...or is it seven?! 

Everything comes full circle, doesn't it?  I loved sardines, I hated them, I love them again.  And now I get to play with them for all the world to see.  Goodness, is that the time?  If you'll excuse me, I'm going to run lines with a nice cup of tea and a pre-rehearsal bite to eatAs Mrs. Clackett would say, "Sardines, sardines...can't put your feet up on an empty stomach, can you?"

NOISES OFF opens on Friday 26 April 2013 at Austin Playhouse in our temporary home at Highland Mall.  For details, please go to

Sardines on Wholemeal Bread...almost as good as Sardines on Toast

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