The Tuna Salad Conversation

We'll show you ours if you'll show us yours

FIRST, HOUSEKEEPING: As I mentioned last week, The Department of Salad will be coming out twice a week! It’s now our full-time job, and we’re excited to bring more salads to your inbox. As things settle down in the Salad Lab, we’ll be migrating back toward a Friday regular newsletter release for all subscribers. Then, on Tuesday (or Wednesday if we get too obsessed), paid subscribers will receive an extra newsletter with even more salad treats. Thanks to all of you, again, for making the Department of Salad a success.

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WE WERE ALWAYS GOING TO HAVE TO HAVE THE TUNA SALAD TALK, so we may as well do it now. Personally, I hesitate because I’ve gotten into trouble with tuna.

I wrote a piece about tuna noodle casserole, its origins, and whether it qualified as comfort food. I also may have said it’s disgusting. The reception was a lot worse than you might expect regarding casual disparagement of canned fish mixed with frozen peas, canned soup, and noodles—baked under a layer of potato chips or whatever. It was even implied in the comments section that I was a snob:

I thought my essay was piercing, tender, fact-filled, and hilarious. But people do not like it when you mess with their nostalgia dishes. 

Even the publication that assigned the piece threw me under the bus, by publishing a response claiming that the origins of this “casserole” were irrelevant and that my assessment was completely wrong. It also implied, at least to my fragile mind, that I was an ungrateful meanie for daring to question how in the world Americans continue to love it. Guilty as charged!

I remained unscathed by this disturbing incident for the most part. Tuna may divide us, but I for one am able to hold two conflicting ideas in my brain at once—in order to maintain a civil society. And I believe that canned tuna is one of those foods that can be both benevolent and malign.

For instance, when it comes to tuna fish salad, I feel no tangled emotions. I’ve adored it all my life, and I can safely say that I have never eaten it and felt cheated in any way.  It’s the pizza of salads: you can abuse the hell out of it and it’s still pretty good. 

Once, in Manhattan, I dragged some work friends to a midtown deli, claiming that it had the best tuna salad I’d ever eaten. They seemed unmoved by it. As we were leaving, I noticed a man behind the counter ladling something from a giant industrial vat into a stainless-steel container at the sandwich-making station. The vat was marked TUNA SALAD. It may have been Acme brand. I was undeterred by the discovery that my favorite deli tuna was made by robots—and I continued going back to this Gourmet Deli often.

Like the dreaded Tuna Noodle Casserole, Tuna Salad inspires in all of us a certain amount of fond (or angry) nostalgia about our version of origin, meaning our Mom’s. My mother put sweet pickle relish and a lot of mayonnaise in hers, and it was sloppy and divine. I respect it, even though my favorite version rejects that much sweetness. I’ll be giving you that recipe on Tuesday (or Wednesday), among other prizes, because it’s still fabulous and kind of a standard bearer.

In college, I had a roommate who hated/feared mayonnaise (we tried to help those of you with this common aversion in Issue #2 ), but he loved tuna salad. So he made giant bowls of it using yellow mustard, which he left in our refrigerator uncovered. He also used large chunks of carrot instead of celery. This tuna salad vexed me, but I ate it anyway. Another college friend used nothing but enormous chunks of white onion, mayonnaise, and salt and pepper, and he ate it on white bread. A fancier friend put jarred chutney in hers. All of these versions, probably learned from my friends’ mothers, were more than fine by me. Bring it on.

I’m always curious about the origins of foods I adore and found a piece in Smithsonian Magazine claiming that the Tuna Salad sandwich was an invention indirectly inspired by women entering the workplace after the turn of the 20th Century. Urban lunch counters had already opened to feed ladies what they were eating at home—salads. When those women began working, and lunch time became more restricted, restaurants got the hot idea to put all that salad between bread or toast. Voila.

Anyway, the point of all of this is to start a discourse at the intersection of Tuna and Salad. I’ve done this before, on Twitter, where I sent out a query asking people to tell me how they make their Tuna Salad. Check it out here; it was fascinating. Some people are completely insane, so they make insane tuna salad, but there wasn’t a single recipe I would refuse to try.

So we’re going to have an open discussion thread for subscribers on Tuesday (or Wednesday), in which we can all talk about how we make our favorite Tuna Salad. Later, I’m going to pick a few to make and share with everyone. I hope to keep it civil. After the Tuna Casserole experience, I try to remember that not loving a person’s tuna dish is like not loving their cat. Even if their cat scratched you on the face, they take any negative comments very personally.

So I look forward to that discussion. And until then, here are two of my favorite versions of Tuna Salad, the first of which I devised specifically for an absolutely divine Tuna Melt.

*RECIPE Tuna Salad for a Tuna Melt

Makes enough for about one person, so double at will

This is very simple, but it is also seriously the bomb. The spicy kick of jalapeño in a rich tuna melt just sends me.

  • 1 5-ounce can oil-packed tuna, well drained (I put it in my wire mesh strainer and let it hang over the sink)

  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (I always use Duke’s and I tend to use less with oil-packed tuna)

  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion (I used red, you can use white)

  • ¼ cup of jarred pickled jalapeño slices, roughly chopped

  • 1 tablespoon roughly chopped chives

  • Squeeze of lemon

  • Pinch of sea salt

In a bowl, break up the tuna well. No big chunks. Add remaining ingredients and mix well to combine. I tend to give my tuna salad a night in the fridge to let the flavors meld before eating it. It’s so much better.

For a grilled tuna melt: Melt a tablespoon of butter over low heat in a large skillet. Meanwhile lightly butter one slice of bread (I use rye). On the other slice, place a piece of cheese (Swiss is my favorite; cheddar is great), as much tuna salad as you like (a lot), and another slice of cheese. Place the buttered slice on top, butter side up. Turn the pan heat up to medium high, place your sandwich in it (unbuttered side down), and let it brown about halfway to where you like it; this won’t take long. Flip it, being careful not to let the tuna spill out, and cook until the second side gets about halfway there, as well. From here, turn down the heat and repeat. You want to cook it slowly now. I place a large pan lid over mine during the second stage to make sure the cheese melts. You will have a lovely crispy exterior and tender dreamy interior.

For an open-face Tuna Melt, which is probably healthier but who wants that: Lightly toast a piece of bread. Nestle upon it as much of the jalapeño tuna salad as you like. Top with cheese. Run it under the broiler until the cheese is melted, bubbly, and starting to brown. If you want to be fancy you can add thinly sliced avocado before adding the cheese.

*RECIPE: Lemony Dill Tuna Salad

Makes enough for about one person, so double at will

This is my current favorite version, light and refreshing. Even if you don’t love dill, you’ll probably like this. If you HATE fresh dill, leave it out and double the amount of chopped dill pickle.

  • 1 5-ounce ounce can water-packed tuna, thoroughly drained

  • 1/2 of a small anchovy (I buy them in the jar because they’re easier to use this way)

  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise (Duke’s is my favorite)

  • Juice of one small lemon, about 2 tablespoons

  • Grated zest of half a lemon

  • 1 scallion, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons); include some of the tops

  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

  • 1 tablespoon chopped dill pickle (don’t use relish; it’s soggy)

  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped

  • Tiny tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

  • Sea salt to taste (the anchovy adds saltiness so be careful)

  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste  

  1. Drain the tuna well and place in a large bowl. Using your fingers, break it apart until it is almost fluffy. Since it’s water packed, this is not too messy.

  2. In a small bowl, smash the anchovy to smithereens with the back of a spoon, then blend in the mayonnaise.

  3. Add the mayonnaise mixture to the tuna, along with the remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Taste to correct seasoning. If it’s too lemony for you, add a tiny bit of salt. Again, I like my tuna salad after it’s had a night in the fridge.

That’s it. We’re finished here. See you next week! And don’t forget to share the Department of Salad with those who deserve it.

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