In Praise of the Tuna Sandwich


The tuna sandwich, with raw onions, at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop

I know of no fancy restaurant that lists tuna salad sandwiches on its menu, or its slutty cousin the patty melt, either. Nor do these places offer the sandwich’s lo-cal sibling the scoop of tuna salad austerely plated on a leaf of iceberg lettuce. These are all the exclusive province of the sandwich shop, the diner, and the working-class snack bar, institutions rapidly disappearing from the city’s dining landscape. Why does the tuna sandwich get so little respect?

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For surely no sandwich gives more pleasure. When properly made using two slices of rye, challah bread, plain store-bought white, or a Kaiser roll (funny that the German emperor should still be commemorated in New York pop culture) – nothing could be more delicious.

When the proper amount of mayo is used, the sandwich is mellow and salty in a way currently stylish, with only a slight fishy taste – nothing like an anchovy on a pizza, yet taking a tentative step in that direction. You can accessorize tuna salad with raw onion, pickle relish, or finely chopped celery. You can even use chopped carrot for a little color. Of course, the sour, half-sour, or jarred dill pickle on the side provides color, too, and sets off the sandwich so perfectly that no one would dare serve one without it.

But why this ghetto-ization of a viand that the public clearly loves? Could it be that the principal ingredient – tuna – comes canned? And canned food is now associated with trailer parks, SRO hotels, and public schools? Well, let’s get this straight: Some things taste better canned, and canning remains one of the premiere methods of food preservation throughout the world.

Or maybe it’s because the public, via sushi bars and high-end Italian restaurants, has learned to cherish fresh tuna, the unsustainable kind that looks like bloody flesh as it sits in the fishmonger’s iced window. Wait, there are hardly any fishmongers left, either.

Well, rest easy, because canned tuna is not the same thing as bluefin or yellowtail (though occasionally, yellowtail can still be found canned). If it were, a 6 ounce 5.5 ounce 5 ounce can would probably cost $25. In fact the canned variety is often either albacore or skipjack, the latter of which Charles Clover refers to as the “rat of the sea” in End of the Line.

And what about mercury? As a predator fish high up the food chain, with a body filled with dense fatty tissue, the tuna tends to concentrate heavy metals like mercury in its flesh. No one worries about this when it comes to eating belly tuna in a sushi bar, or tuna steaks in an Italian or French restaurant, but it becomes almost an obsession where canned tuna is concerned.

So the objections to eating a tuna sandwich run to four:

1. It’s plebian food not served in finer restaurants;
2. It originates in a can and is hence not local or seasonal;
3. It’s too salty and filled with fat (though no one ever says that when knocking back a thick juicy steak);
4. It’s loaded with mercury. In fact, I’ve heard canned tuna referred to as “mercury fish.”

Well, as with anything else, you pays your money and takes your chances. And I won’t give up my tuna salad sandwiches until I’m carried out of the Cooper Square Voice offices, dithering like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

Take a peek at the equally daft Defense of Cottage Cheese.