anchovies and adulthood

Caesar salad always came with a caveat.

No anchovies, please. 

And if they were part of the dressing, well, there goes that. There’s always caprese.

So having not ever come within fork’s distance of an anchovy in my entire life, I nonetheless absorbed my mother’s strong aversion to the slimy, hairy fish and decided that I too would never, ever eat it. Because ew. So gross.

Plus, there was other seafood to distract me. Thick pieces of fatty salmon doused in lemon juice, flaky tilapia baked en papillote until the cherry tomatoes reached their popping point, breaded shrimp perfectly charred under the broiler, and – on Christmas Eve —  spaghetti with a thick lobster tomato sauce.

So I never questioned that fact that our kitchen was anchovy-less, and I assumed the mere mention of the fish elicited as visceral a reaction from everyone — which made me wonder why, then, they would add such a vile ingredient to such a common, all-American appetizer. Seems inconvenient.

But I was ten, and my parents were adults, and adults were right about everything.

College came and went, and frankly, I was too busy eating veggie burgers, stir frys, salad bar concoctions, and froyo from the dining hall to give anchovies a second thought. Our paths didn’t cross when I studied abroad in France, nor when I moved back after college for a year.

In fact, it wasn’t until a family vacation in Puglia, on the sun-drenched heel of Italy, did I encounter the tiny fish for the first time.

It was our last night in Lecce, and we stumbled into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant after a long day of wandering — feet swollen from the cobblestone streets, sun-burnt shoulders radiating heat, backs aching from bags that felt heavier as the day wore on.

So perhaps it was the delirium of tourist fatigue that convinced me, or the spontaneity of being in a foreign country, or likely some combination of the two. Because when I saw anchovies on the menu, my mind was made. I was going to order them.

They came still snug in their tin, with the top artfully pulled just a smidge so they could peek out. A mini ramekin of butter and pile of flaky sea salt were strategically arranged on the thin rectangular plate, with thick slices of dense Pugliese bread in the center.

I hesitated as I began the cumbersome assembly — first spreading a thick smear of butter across the bread, then trading in the knife for a miniature fork to fish a single anchovy out of the pool of extra virgin olive oil. And finally, using my fingers to grab a pinch of coarse salt and sprinkle it over the top.

As I carefully lifted the bread (bruschetta? open-faced sandwich? fancy toast?) up to my mouth, I half-expected to be hit with a pungent wave of fishy odor, but it was the intensely fruit and peppery aroma of olive oil that caught me off guard. And when I took the first bite, I was immediately greeted with the satisfyingly salty taste of the sea, followed by the oil — bitter but not overwhelmingly so. The anchovy, while meaty, managed to melt in my mouth in unison with the creamy butter — a symphony of savory, umami flavors making me emit a deep, yogic exhale of satisfaction while licking my lips clean of the lingering oil.

As I sat back in my chair marveling at what I just ate, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I’d been missing out for 25 years on a secret the rest of the world was clearly privy to.

Anchovies taste good. 

And while I desperately wanted my mom to give these a try, to stand in gustatory solidarity with me, it was okay that she didn’t want to. And okay that I 100% did.

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