My father was a maintenance man for one of StarKist Foods’ canneries on Terminal Island long before I was born until I was about 8 years old. When he started working for StarKist there were nearly 500 boats fishing out of San Pedro. Most of the members of our family and our friends’ families were connected in some way to the commercial fishing industry around the Los Angeles harbor.
Each year we’d participate in the blessing of the fleet –a parade through the harbor of a couple of hundred fishing vessels while thousands of bystanders watched from the docks. This parade was second only to the Rose Parade when I was growing up. On board a relative’s boat we’d bow our heads as the priest on shore prayed for a plentiful and safe fishing season. There was always a feast with music and dancing afterward.
A 2001 Los Angeles Times article stated, “Croatian, Portuguese and Italian fishing families, many of them Catholic, founded San Pedro. Content with the beauty of the hills rising from the harbor, they built their homes, their church, their businesses and dutifully produced large families to do the same.”
My maternal grandfather was one of those Croatian founders. My mother and her sisters worked long hours in the canneries packing sardines before child labor laws. My mother worked for StarKist on and off her entire life.
My dad’s cousin and best friend Vince was the cook on board a purse seiner where other cousins were crew. When they were at sea we knew where the fleet was, chasing mackerel down in Mexico or heading back to port loaded with bluefin.
We knew when the fish were in and when the cannery was working double time. My dad got phone calls in the middle of the night when equipment broke down. There was no bridge to Terminal Island in those days, so he had to take the ferry. Before I started school, Dad took me to his work once in a while. I remember the smell of fish (which I never minded) and the sense that everyone was bustling, moving fast.
Because we were Catholic, Dad brought fresh fish from the cannery home in a bucket every Friday. Mom cooked up whatever it was he brought from sand dabs to squid. I think I’ve eaten every kind of fish there is including octopus and eel.
When it came to albacore, we got it in a can. Apparently StarKist had a contract with the military for canned tuna and it was known they saved the best albacore for them. The 6 oz., unmarked, gold-colored tins were sold to the government and also by the case to insiders. That’s the albacore I grew up on.
So, you see, I am no stranger to commercial fishing, canneries or canned albacore, but until I moved to Crescent City, I thought canned tuna came out of a can, not a jar. In recent weeks I’ve felt inadequate in the company of the Del Norte canning community when the conversation turns to tuna. Just last Saturday at the farmers market, I listened to a couple boast about canning a thousand pounds of albacore, enough to keep them, their extended family and even an ex-husband in tuna for a year.
Just about everyone I’ve talked to lately–including the most unlikely co-workers–has been obsessed with catching tuna, buying tuna, freezing tuna, thawing tuna or canning huge quantities of tuna in jars.
Wanting to fit in, Rick and I have taken the plunge. We bought a new pressure cooker and we’re going to take it out of the box soon. Perhaps by next albacore season we’ll be ready for some extreme canning. I’ll let you know.
Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate’s publisher at 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.