Until last year when my husband, Mike, began the Paleolithic Diet, sardines were not one of our regular household foods. In fact, the only time I can remember having sardines in our apartment was in 1998. It was shortly before our wedding, before we had children (and before we both had type 1 diabetes). We lived in Jerusalem with a one-year-old Bullmastiff and a black kitten named Sabina. Sabina was the first cat we’d purchased. Previously, I had adopted strays. But the strays wouldn’t stay in the apartment where it was safe. They yowled at the door and begged to go out to the street. After our second stray cat died, I swore I wouldn’t bring home another cat. The losses were too painful. Within a matter of weeks, however, Mike began to notice I was loitering around the trash cans at the corner of our block and saying hello to the cats who searched there for food. “People are going to realize you’re insane,” he said. “Let’s get a cat. This time we’ll get a tame, inside cat.”
We saw a newspaper ad for Persian kittens, so we drove through the hills to the outskirts of Jerusalem and met Ruth, a woman with messy, dark hair, a gruff smoker’s voice, and fourteen cats. Had we known anything about Persian cats at the time, we’d have known that simply having long hair does not mean Persian. Or maybe we knew it then and didn’t really care. In Ruth’s basement apartment we saw kittens – a pile of black, long-haired kittens. I was in love, with all of them. Ruth saw that I was an easy target. She started to bargain. Using an unlit cigarette as a pointer she gestured at one of the kittens. “This one is very good,” she said. “I can give you this one for a special price.” We weren’t paying attention to Ruth because one of the kittens had come right over to us and snuggled into Mike’s lap. When he picked her up she pushed her face into his armpit, clearly a sign she was meant to be ours. Mike paid Ruth one hundred dollars, and we were the proud owners of a long-haired street cat. I named her Sabina. As days passed and we saw more and more clearly that Sabina had none of the facial features of a Persian cat, we had deal with the fact that we’d paid good money for cat just like any cat I could have plucked off the trash can at the corner. Rather than allowing ourselves to feel duped, we decided to give Sabina a breed of her own. “She’s Peloponesian,” we said.
“I don’t have any now, but I can get you one,” Ruth said. “Except…”
“You have to come with me to get the kitten from Nancy and you have to pretend you’re just helping me. You can’t say it’s for you.”
I foresaw an adventure with crazy cat ladies and though I probably should have steered clear, I jumped right in. “When are we going?”
The next night Ruth and I met outside Nancy’s apartment. Ruth was pacing. “Remember to pretend you’re just helping me choose a kitten. Don’t say it’s for you.”
“I would never,” I said. And after that, I said no more because from the minute Ruth let herself into Nancy’s apartment I had to hold my breath.
I could have played hopscotch in the litter boxes on the floor of Nancy’s tiny apartment. There were no open windows. Nancy, who was obese, lay with her feet up in a Lazy-boy style recliner. She watched TV and never rose from the chair. I looked at the cats swirling around and felt sorry for them. I tried not to gag.
Ruth gave me a little shove. “Look under the couch,” she said.
I gagged, got down on my hands and knees, and peered into the dark beneath the couch. I saw five pairs of kitten eyes shining at me.
“Pull them out,” Nancy said, still staring at the TV. Ruth shoved me again. “Go on,” she said.
I gently pulled out the tiny, fluffy gray kittens. They mewed as I lifted their tails, looking for a female. I found one, and she was delicate and beautiful. “You should take this one, Ruth,” I said. “She’s perfect for you.”
“Very nice,” Ruth said. She took the kitten from my hands and headed for the door without saying good-bye. Ruth walked me to my car where Mike was waiting. As soon as she saw Mike, she began to bargain again. “Look how special this one is,” Ruth said. “For this one you must give me two hundred dollars.”
“We have to,” I said to Mike. “This kitten will make Sabina so happy.”
I was wrong. As we walked into our apartment with the new kitten, Zoe, Sabina hissed. She growled and swatted if Zoe came anywhere close. “You’re a witch,” I’d say to Sabina. “How can you do that to a tiny kitten?” Tiny Zoe was beginning to hiss in return.
The situation was violent, and neither kitten could be reasoned with. The dog tried to referee, but even he was intimated by the hissing and screeching. I didn’t know what to do so I turned to a manual on caring for cats. For such a situation, the manual recommended rubbing sardine oil on the cats. This would encourage them to lick one another, and through the act of “social grooming” they would form a bond, make peace. It sounded like solid advice. I told Mike about it and we decided to try. We bought several tins of sardines, poured the oil into a bowl, dipped our fingers into it and then rubbed it, generously, all over our kittens, as if we were shampooing them. If we’d had any foresight we’d have thought it might not be a good idea to have kittens covered in sardine oil in our apartment. But we only realized that after they began rolling themselves on the carpet, jumping on the sofa, and leaping into our bed.
“We have to wash them,” Mike said. “Right now!” He pulled Sabina off of our blanket. Her fur looked like we’d spiked it with gel.
“We can’t,” I said. “First the cats have to groom each other.”
We waited several hours for Sabina and Zoe to approach one another. They never did, and why would they? Each one had plenty of sardine oil to lick off herself.
With time, the cats learned to love each other without the help of any fish. And all these years later, sardines are lovingly back in our lives, or at least in Mike’s. He eats them all of the time as part of his Paleo diet, and I complain about the smell, a smell I find so foul I tell him, “A marriage weaker than ours couldn’t survive this.”
It turns out, sardines are good for survival. You probably don’t need to bolus for them, and they are one of the healthiest foods around: high in iron, protein, calcium, omega 3, and a one of the few good food sources of vitamin D. Sardines are also very inexpensive. You can keep tinned sardines in your pantry and always have them on hand for those moments when you need a quick meal that won’t make your blood sugar soar. Sardines make for good conversation, too. Almost everyone has a sardine story. A friend recently told me about swimming with sardines in Sardinia. My favorite sardine story is my father’s. During dinner at a restaurant in Buenos Aires he sat with a group of Argentinians who had what seemed to be an entire cow on the table- undercooked meat and plenty of bones. Since he keeps kosher, my father had asked to receive something else for dinner. The only thing the waiter had to offer was a tin of sardines. My father gladly accepted it. The woman sitting beside him, who had a large, rare steak on her plate, was less appreciative of the sardines. “Please,” she said. “Move those things. I can’t stand to see what you’re eating.”