Herring and Sardines

Appears in
Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America

By Andrew F. Smith

Published 2004

  • About

Herring (Culpea harengus) belong to the same family of fish that includes shad, alewives, and sardines, though they do not spawn in fresh water. They school in huge numbers and were fished for commercially in Europe and off the New England and Middle Atlantic coasts. Their oily flesh made them ideal for salting and smoking, which meant that they were shipped inland for sale. Herring are also caught for use as bait, particularly in the lobster fishery.

Some plantation owners arranged for catches of herring, which were salted to be food for slaves, but herring consumption was relatively low in America until more immigrants arrived, especially from the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. Several products made from herring included hard or red herring, bloaters, kippers, and bucklings. Immature herring were canned in the same manner as true sardines (Sardinia pilchardus) when imported sardines from France became fashionable in the later 1800s. Although sardines were a favorite in saloons and bars in the twentieth century, sardine consumption took a nosedive during Prohibition. Sardine packing hung on through the end of the twentieth century in Maine, but most sardines eaten in America in 2011 come from herring canned in Canada and Scandinavia.