A far-flung delicacy that lives at the intersection of healthy, affordable, and conveniently canned is already something of an anomaly. But Fishwife, a new Los Angeles-based tinned fish company serving up olive oil-soaked sardines from Spain’s golden coast and smoked albacore tuna hook-and-line caught in Northern California waters, is elevating this junction even further with sustainable sourcing, female-centered storytelling, and stylish branding. The way co-founders Caroline Goldfarb, a TV-comedy writer and co-host of the Glowing Up podcast, and Becca Millstein, an artist community manager at The Rattle Collective, see it, if ever there was a time to embrace tinned seafood, it’s now. The idea for Fishwife was born in quarantine, after all.
While in lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, Goldfarb and Millstein were preparing all their food at home; tinned fish became a pillar for many of their best-loved snacks and meals, from sardines on crusty buttered toast and salads to linguine with mussels in an anchovy tomato sauce. One day in May, it occurred to them there was a gap in the American market for affordable, sustainably-caught, and well-branded tinned fish. “Tinned fish is the true fast food,” says Goldfarb, a self-proclaimed “tinned fish evangelist.” “There’s literally no easier or healthier meal that you can ‘pop’ in less than 30 seconds. And while tinned fish is having a renaissance among foodies and chefs, we think, in a time when so many are returning to their kitchens and looking for ways to keep their meals delicious, affordable, and healthy, it should be a beloved staple in everyone’s pantry.”
From that day on, the pair spent hours at a time collecting feedback on the concept, researching the global fish market, and figuring out how to source the fish; the latter of which meant hopping on 6 a.m. Zoom calls with Portuguese and Spanish canneries. During their deep dive, they also drew on their own experience with the European culture of conservas, the centuries-old craft of canning premium fish and seafood. “I lived in Granada, Spain for a few months, and fell in love with the artfulness,” explains Millstein. “The whole experience seemed to represent a wonderful marriage of elevated cuisine, and a casual, relaxed way of enjoying food with others.” Similarly, Goldfarb treats the Spanish and Portuguese conservas she procured like objets d’art. “I traveled to Portugal a couple years back, and remember my amazement when walking in Lisbon and Porto and seeing shops that displayed rows upon rows of gorgeously packaged tinned fish,” explains Goldfarb. But what excited them most is how well the concept fits into modern American life: Sustainable, affordable, convenient, and packed with health benefits—fatty fish, such as sardines and salmons, are packed with heart-healthy omega-3s.
Fishwife’s moniker—a reference to the 17th century-era slang term used to describe the wives or daughters of fishermen who sold their husband’s or father’s fish—is telling of Goldfarb and Millstein’s playful, yet directional approach to disrupting the market. “These women were known as both notoriously loud and foul-mouthed, hardy, and resourceful,” explains Goldfarb. “‘Fishwife’ simultaneously evolved into a gendered insult for mouthy, brash women, and a reference to powerful, entrepreneurial women. As foul-mouthed, fish-slinging entrepreneurial ladies, the term deeply resonates.”
Of course, in today’s Instagram-minded landscape, beautifully reimagined packaging was an essential element. When the duo were looking to evolve the colorful and classic styles from European conservas for a modern brand that would appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds, they tapped LA-based graphic designer Danbo, the creator behind their illustrated logo. But while seeking to evoke the simple rituals and old world charm of European conservas with their offerings, Fishwife is also intended to help Americans expand their appetite and palate for tinned fish. “The kinds of tinned fish that people are familiar with are largely limited to tuna, maybe salmon,” explains Millstein. “Somewhere along the line, it seems that Americans had decided that tinned fish was not a desirable culinary choice. We want to kick open the door to the glory that is forking lemony sardines over a buttered baguette, plucking juicy mussels in olive oil straight out of the can.”
For their array of mouth-watering offerings, Fishwife is sourcing both internationally and domestically. Their sardines and mussels are from the coast of Galicia, a region with one of the richest conservas traditions. “The oceanography is such that the cold waters of the Atlantic mix with pure river water from the mountains, creating a perfect environment for harvesting fantastic fish and seafood,” explains Goldfarb. For species that they can readily source from the Northern Pacific, like salmon and tuna, they’re working with independent domestic fisherwomen and men. “In speaking with fishermen up and down the west coast, we learned that many had lost revenue due to a drop in their restaurant sales during COVID-19, and were looking for other routes to market,” says Millstein. “Tinned products, which are shelf-stable, can provide an alternate revenue stream.” While tried-and-true favorites such as the sardines in olive oil with natural lemon and herby garlicky mussels will be available year-round, the pair says Fishwife will be “keeping it spicy” with small runs of seasonal, domestic tinned fish releases as well. Fishwife is releasing their first limited drop in partnership with fisherwoman Kat Murphy, who runs her own salmon fishing business, Katfish Salmon Co. in Southeast Alaska.
Amid the global pandemic, with travel largely on hold, Fishwife not only offers the flavors of faraway seas, but helps foster a deeper appreciation for how the ocean nourishes and inspires. Since its soft launch, Fishwife has been collaborating with female-identifying writers, including poet Natasha Rao, choreographer and doula Ogemdi Ude, and critic and reporter Sophie Haigney, to compose snippets of fish, boat-side, and sea-related writing to roll out on their Instagram.
“Sly wink of a fish, brackish then brined, thin gills brimming with light,” writes Rao in her Ode to the Sardine. “O slip of glitter, I want to scoop you into my pelican mouth, my snark snout, I want to chase you with a sip of wine for a taste of frenzy, of freedom, you who have flickered through the coursing waters of time, dined with emperors, brought sauces to life. You prove nothing is too small to be mighty, O shimmering symbol of spirit and sea!” While helping to stock pandemic-time pantries, Fishwife is revitalizing centuries-old tradition and offering a new kind of tinned fish experience.