Pilchards/sardines in North America

Are canned pilchards or sardines easy to find in the U.S.? Here in South Africa they’re very common, as is tuna of course. I know tuna is everywhere but I don’t recall ever seeing Americans discuss pilchards. I know it does have various regional names so maybe that’s why?

In my experience, they are usually called sardines in the U.S., and yes, canned sardines can be bought at almost any supermarket.

I would say that tuna is probably a bit more common. With sardines, you get people who like them, but also many people who express disgust at them, where tuna I would say even people who don’t like it don’t mind it too much.

In just about every grocery store you can get a few different brands of sardines usually canned in water, oil, mustard and hot sauce. I’m only guessing based on experience but it seems in the U.S. you are pretty much limited to the small sardines in the little rectangular cans and not the big sardines in the oval tins. You can find them but I really only notice them in stores that keep a wide selection of foreign or ethnic foods.

All my local supermarkets have both.

Every supermarket I’ve been to, including Walmarts that sell groceries, will have at least a small selection. Given the number of old cartoons that feature them, I’m assuming they were more common in the past before the tuna fishing industry took off, and started to advertise. They tend to be imported, and thus expensive relative to tuna or other protein, so I assume it’s mostly people like me that have a taste for them that eat them. I’ve only seen the ones in small rectangular tins.

They are imported because the vast sardine fisheries of the west coast of North America have collapsed.

I occasionally get a hankering for good sardines in the big tins, usually with the spicy tomato sauce. I like them on crusty bread because it reminds me of my days wandering through Europe when they served as a particularly tasty snack when I was off the beaten path or it was raining or it was late.

I used to be able to find them at the Big Lots, which is a low-priced reseller of older merchandise. Sort of like a cheap Wal-Mart. In any case, if one checks the date and the product is still good I don’t see any problem. And when I would share a $2.50 tin of sardines with the cats, boy they loved me and rightly so.

I haven’t seen the big tins of sardines in the Big Lots in probably two years. The small tins are there. I can also find small tins at the regular, more expensive grocery stores (Kroger, Giant Eagle), but the big tins have become hard to find. Finally, about six months ago I found them at my local Chinese food market. I think they’re a little more expensive, say $3.75 - $4, IIRC, but I got my fix.

As for pilchards - and I’ve had some great small fish before - the best I’ve had were caught by the captain of a boat I was working off of in the Azores. While we dived during the day, the captain dropped his line over and over into the harbor at Angra. In the evening, he grilled them for us with salt, olive oil and a little lemon. They may not have been true pilchards, but boy they tasted good.

The fishery collapsed in large part to a cooling cycle in the Pacific Ocean. Over the last few decades the temperatures in the Pacific have warmed and the fishery is once again fairly healthy.