Somehow the sardine has been elevated to a level almost of the saint himself, Saint Anthony that is.
Outside of Portugal, he might be known as Saint Anthony of Padua. But, here in Lisboa, he is their hometown boy. He was born right here. A saint of heroic proportions, so much so that his Feast Day, June 13, is glorified by a full month of celebrations.
People have been prepping for the party ever since our arrival in Lisboa. Festoons are flung across streets. Banners hang and bleachers are set up along the broad, tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, ready for a parade on June 12. Neighborhood groups gather and parade across town to his church on various evenings. And, in Alfama, booths come alive nightly, plying passersby with jiggers of the strong cherry ginjinha, jugs of sangria, beer, fried things and, of course, grilled sardines.
Sardines seem synonymous with the celebration, with artist-designed sardines featured on the banners of the umbrella group, Festas de Lisboa. This might stem from one of the numerous miracles attributed to Saint Anthony. Perhaps tiring of preaching to skeptics, he turned to the water and starting praising the glory of the fish who all rose enraptured to the surface, listening until he completed his sermon.
Surely, the attentive ones must have been sardines because it makes everything so convenient. Because this is their prime season. Along the coast, colorful fishing trawlers head out at night with nets to encircle the schools of sardines to bring back fresh to the docks by morning. By noon, they sizzle on grills everywhere throughout the country, the smoke and smell scenting the air heavily on some streets.
These freshly caught ones seem unrelated to the strong-tasting, oily canned sardines I remember from childhood. The fine bones of small ones thrown on the grill can be easily chomped upon, but the plump larger ones that you must filet are prized for their moist, sweet meat.
Being here on June 13th is sort of a pilgrimage, because, although named in his honor, San Antonio, Texas, pretty much ignores his day. Even his mission, the Alamo, no longer is known by his name. Frank Jennings tried to get a meaningful Founders’ Day going, and Rolando Briseno attempted to create artistic pageantry in honor of San Antonio’s patron saint.
But nothing stuck.