remnants: ode to the tuna melt

remnants: ode to the tuna melt

I wrote this in 2015 for a sandwich project someone was working on; it didn't make it into the project, so it's been sitting here for 7 years, waiting for its moment.

This is the construction of your classic tuna melt: toasted bread, mayonnaise-based tuna fish salad (onions or no), topped with cheese (preferably cheddar) and popped under the broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese. You can also melt the cheese on the bread and then layer the tuna fish inside of it.

“Melt” is the operative word here, the cheese is just supposed to melt slightly so the tuna salad maintains its coolness. You toast the bread to support the operation, but not as some kind of statement, it’s not a ‘panini’ and you don’t roast the life out of it under a sandwich press. And under no circumstances whatsoever do you toss the tuna fish salad onto the flat top to heat up before plopping it on the bread, chucking the cheese unceremoniously on the top and hoping the heat from the tuna melts it.

In terms of construction, it is perfectly acceptable for it to be constructed as an actual sandwich with the melted cheese on either side of the bread with the tuna in the middle or for it to be presented open-face; I am happy with either. The bread should preferably be a white or a wheat; some people find rye acceptable, and while generally I like its sturdiness, I personally feel that the caraway is too busy for the rest of this particular sandwich.

The tuna melt was my go-to for years. I have eaten it at all hours of the day and night, in coffee shops and diners all around the tri-state area. If I was hungry, I wanted a tuna melt. If I was sad, I wanted a tuna melt. If I swore I had no appetite, my friends ordered me a tuna melt, knowing that despite my protestations, I would eat it once it arrived. They would be right. It was filling but not so much food that you couldn’t finish it, it was healthier than a burger, it was satisfying and partially warm and gave you a serving of protein.

My favorite places for tuna melts back in the day were the Malibu Diner in Hoboken, just a couple of blocks away from Maxwell’s; Odessa on Avenue A; and the coffee shop downstairs from my first job out of college, located in the office building still located at 250 W. 57th Street. The Malibu is still there, tricked out in layers of modern chrome; part of Odessa is still there, although I haven’t eaten there in decades; and the former coffee shop is now a Pottery Barn. I also ate some very memorable tuna melts in the diner that used to be on Sheridan Square; it’s a Starbucks now, but was once a convenient 24-hour refuge for someone who had to head home to Jersey via the PATH. I could always find it, even when the West Village’s wagon-wheel street layout would get me discombobulated. (It still does.)

I left the city for about a decade, and lived in a place with no coffee shops, no diners, no real late-night food to speak of. I never even tried to make myself a tuna melt, nor looked for it in Los Angeles, like I did Jewish deli food. But literally hours after I returned home, I went to a diner in Jersey and ordered a tuna melt. I sat in the booth, mouth watering, looking forward to the toasty crunch and interplay of melted cheese on the bread. I got a panini. I moved to Brooklyn, went to a diner in the neighborhood, and ordered a tuna melt. The sandwich was delivered cold, with some congealed American cheese stuck on the top. I sent it back and ordered something else.

The next time we were at a diner and I was about to say the words “tuna melt,” the person I was with said, “Why are you doing this to yourself? No one knows how to do this any more. Get something else.” Sadly, I had to concede they were right, and ordered a BLT instead.

I recently started working in Flatiron, and one busy Friday, decided to order in from a legendary coffee shop located in the neighborhood. Of course, I ordered a tuna melt. Usually this would not be a delivery choice for me, but I am literally three blocks away and felt that this hallowed establishment could get me a tuna melt in one piece. The foil-wrapped packet was still warm, and I opened it eagerly, looking forward to my first bite. The bread was dry, the cheese wasn’t melted, and the tuna salad was mostly mayonnaise with bits of tuna and celery and onion swimming in it.

I officially give up. I quit. The tuna melt is a lost art, vanishing with any other kind of non-artisanal, non-farm-to-table, straight-ahead sandwich, your classic cheese pizza slice, the kosher hot dog, and any of the other quick, easy and cheap foods of my youth. No one is championing the tuna melt, no one is blogging about it on the internet (a web search reveals a game, a dog, and a distortion pedal named ‘tuna melt,’ but nothing else).

But wait, what’s this? Schnipper’s has a tuna melt on the menu?

Time for lunch. Hope springs eternal. Long live the tuna melt.

footnote: the Schnipper's tuna melt passed the audition.