Hello and Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes! I’m your auteur author, Jon O’Guin, and this week, we continue Diner Month with our first explicitly non-breakfast offering! So let’s tune in and chill out and we talk shop about Tuna Melts.
Everything is Personal. Especially Business
I want to make a small explanation here, for something you may not have even noticed. See, when I first came up with the idea for Diner Month, I sat down, and wrote up a list of 13 foods I thought of as “Quintessential Diner Foods”. As you may have noticed, there are not 13 weeks in September, so there was never any way I was going to cover them all. When I made my picks for the month, however, I devoted half of it to breakfast foods. And that’s because of my personal experiences: the closest thing my home town has to a real diner isa small café near my house that specializes in breakfast dishes, and so that’s a heavy component of what I think of when I think of diners.
This picture is taken at said diner. For scale, that biscuit is roughly 4 inches across.
So, if you feel cheated because I didn’t get to your preferred diner dish, understand that I probably considered it, decided not to, and now feel somewhat bad about that. And also that I’ve invested at least some time into researching several diner dishes, so it’s not impossible I’ll end up covering it in the future.
Also, I wanted to cover a point that I’ve made several times on the site that may affect my reasoning with this dish: I do not like seafood. It’s been this way for some time. I recently explained it to someone in such a way that actually put them off of seafood for a short while, so let me replicate that explanation here, to spread my dark influence. Somewhere around age 8 or 9, I became disgusted by the idea of foods that were obvious parts of an animal. Like, Chicken breast, chicken nuggets, fine. But drumsticks were weird, as were, you know, sheep’s eyes, or crab leg. This particularly hurt my ability to eat seafood: crabs and lobster come with their legs and claws; oysters and clams are just the ENTIRE animal, butthole and all; whole fish lying on a plate, their blank eyes staring at you.
Of course, as a child, I didn’t think it through so thoroughly. I just knew that I didn’t like seafood or certain other foods. (And when your father is a big fan of chicken hearts and gizzards, and you don’t know why you don’t like them, it’s a pretty confusing and irritating dinner.) All I knew is that I didn’t like seafood, EXCEPT Canned Tuna and Smoked Salmon, and eventually some kinds of sushi. It wasn’t until College that I really sat down, and traced all the foods I hate, and really ‘listened’ to my own revulsion that I figured out the problem.
I’ve been working on it, since then. I can eat filets of fish, I eat sushi pretty regularly, and Lobster or crab can be fine. I’m still a hard pass on bivalves, though. I have yet to eat a clam, mussel, or oyster, and not feel like it was a mistake. Also, the textures of some fish still fuck me up. I tried Poké for the first time a few weeks ago, and the raw tuna cube texture almost lead to what Romans and competitive eaters call “A reversal of fortune”.
That means 'Puking'.
Also, did you know there was a 1990 film titled Reversal of Fortune? I didn't until I started looking for pictures to write 'That means 'Puking'.' under.
So, while I rated these sandwiches as SPOILERS: “You know, Fine. Perfectly adequate.” Maybe someone else would rate them higher. Or lower! I’ve really only eaten maybe 3-4 recipes of Tuna salad, so maybe there are much better ones I haven’t explored, because these are the first Tuna Melts I’ve ever eaten. It could go either way.
That out of the way, let’s dive into the history of the Tuna Melt, and talk about how I made it.
A Fishy Story Indeed.
So, the story of the tuna melt is a rich history of…look. Chicken Fried Steak at least had a confusing history. Home Fries had, in my opinion, a cool history, and I say that knowing that saying “a cool history” invalidates my opinion of knowing what “cool” is.
I do know that this is the second coolest VanWinkle, though.
Tuna Melts are not like that. The ONLY origin story I’ve seen for them is “A cook in South Carolina fucked up a grilled cheese sandwich REAL bad.” Specifically, a bowl of tuna salad he had ABOVE THE GRIDDLE fell into the sandwich, and he didn’t notice. Who…Who stores their mayo-based fish salad in THE SINGLE HOTTEST PLACE IN THE KITCHEN? Was he TRYING to kill people?
Anyway, “melts” in general are a diner staple, referring to hot sandwiches with some kind of filling (tuna salad, burger patty, roast beef, whatever) and melted cheese between griddled bread. And it’s not hard to see why: as we noted back in the History of Diners post, Diners started as a way to serve meals to people working late at night in New England. Trust me, Boston nights, down by the harbor, they’re cold as balls. And let’s never ask why a man who lives on the West Coast, with vague (fictional) connections to the Armenian Mob, knows what Boston nights feel like, okay?
You ask a lotta questions for someone who doesn't wanna end up in the hahbah.
Of course, the desire for a hot meal is universal to like, half of the year in most of the country. The temperature dropped below 70 for the first time in months today, and I’ve had cold feet all day because of it. And at night, when temps can drop by 10 or more degrees, it makes sense why a thick cut sandwich with melty cheese and crunchy bread would be appealing.
So how does one make this universal delight, this Jansson’s frestelse of American diners? (Little shout out for all my Swedish readers there, hope you both enjoy that.)
Where there’s a Fish, There’s A Way
What? Seriously, what the hell does that mean, Title Jon? Goddamn it, I just made a Swedish culinary reference, and you come tromping in here with goddamn animated Return of the King on your shoes? And you don’t even brush it off WELL? Somedays I hate you.
But the lord of the lash says
Nay Nay Nay!
Damnit, you even got it stuck in my head!
The Tuna Melt is a very simple sandwich, at its core, though trust me when I say my methods are by no means the end-all be-all of the format. Opinions on Tuna Melts are hotly contested, some despise the very idea of the sandwich, others adore it. Should there be a lot of tuna, or is that wasteful? White or Wheat bread, should anything besides cheese and tuna salad be on the bread? What KIND of cheese should it be?
Faced with all these questions, I launched into an elaborate and painstaking research program, meant to winnow out what the universal ideal of a tuna melt WAS. Then I got a cost estimate back on running those numbers, and said “Well shoot that ship in the harbor and burn it to the water-line, I’ll just make some shit up.”
Pictured: Some Shit I Made Up
I went with no toppings beyond salad and cheese, though in the interest of fairness, I am told a crisp lettuce leaf or sweet pickle chip can do wonders to balance the fatty richness of the sandwich. I chose Rye bread honestly for a bit of variety, and because it felt very “diner-esque”: Diners are one of the few places that will OFFER me Rye as a bread choice. And I went with Sharp Yellow Cheddar, because, hey, normalcy.
For values of normal.
I took a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen for the salad, though I ended up modifying it mildly. Yellow onion instead of red onion, some dried herbs instead of fresh parsley, that kind of thing. The recipe itself was somewhat treacherous to me, because I’ve eaten Test Kitchen Tuna Salad for YEARS, and THIS was not that recipe. I don’t know when they decided to change it, but I was a little peeved. On the other hand, this recipe was actually mildly faster, so, progress marches on and all that.
We actually had multiple Rye breads, because I had wandered away from my phone after saying “Hey, get some Rye bread”, so I missed the text of “There’s like, 6 Rye breads, which one do you want?” Most of the family ate on Jewish Rye Bread, while my brother held to the Dark Rye.
Light and Dark. Day and Night, Yin and Yang.
As I said before, it’s a real easy recipe. Like, for the salad itself, 3 ingredients get diced. Once you’ve achieved that, you’ve completed the hardest part of the recipe. Everything else is just stirred together, then you butter bread, throw it in a hot pan, and put tuna salad on it. Melt some cheddar on top, flip it, and you’re good.
I ran into one difficulty, which was that the two-sandwiches-at-a-time breakneck speed we were using meant I couldn’t flip them using the pan. So I had to pick the sandwiches up with a spatula, that bent alarmingly deep under the sandwich. Now, if you’ve never done this maneuver before, let me tell you what happens 60% of the time I try it: you flip it over, the falling bread separates, and your sandwich becomes a shambles. Turns out, you’re supposed to HOLD the top slice of bread while flipping, either with another tool, or with just your fingers. Who could have guessed? Except anyone. Ever. That’s the single easiest idea I’ve ever seen, and it took me years of cooking to figure out.
Mixed, flipped, and ready to eat, how does the tuna melt stack up? You know, Fine. Perfectly adequate. I like Tuna Salad well enough, and I like cheddar cheese, and I’m totally okay with Rye bread. Everything worked together and didn’t suck. Was it my favorite sandwich? No. I do think that a little more freshness, whether from lettuce, pickles, or some kind of sharp sauce, inside the sandwich would have balanced it a bit better. But hey, baby steps.
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THURSDAY: IT’S TIME TO TALK SYMBOLISM: THE DINER AS ART, AND AS ICON
MONDAY: OUR LAST MEAL OF DINER MONTH ISN’T A MEAL AT ALL. WE’RE GOING STRAIGHT TO THE SODA FOUNTAIN, TO POUR SOME DINER DRINKS!
2 cans solid white tuna in water (about 12 oz)
2 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp table salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 small rib celery, minced (about 1/4 cup)
2 tbsps minced red onion
2 tbsps chopped pickles (sweet or dill)
½ clove garlic, minced or pressed
2 tbsps minced fresh parsley leaves (I substituted 1 tsp dried Dill and 1 tsp dried chives)
½ c mayonnaise
¼ tsp Dijon mustard
8 slices bread (preferably Rye)
3 tbsp butter
4-6 slices cheddar cheese
Softened butter or margarine for spreading.
1. Make the tuna salad: Drain the tuna in a colander or sieve. Shred to a fine texture. Stir all ingredients EXCEPT mayo and mustard together. Then fold in mayo and mustard.
2. Heat a non-stick pan to medium high heat. Melt 2 tbsp butter in the pan, as you butter the first two slices of bread. Place the slices, buttered side down, in the pan, and scoop roughly 1/2 c tuna salad onto each slice. Top with cheddar cheese (due to the width of our bread, I used 1.5 slices of cheddar per sandwich). Top with another buttered slice of bread, butter facing upward. Cook roughly 4 minutes, until crisp, then flip sandwich, cook another 3-4 minutes, and remove from heat.
3. Add remaining tbsp. of butter to pan, and repeat process with remaining bread, salad, and cheese. Serve warm.