John Kehe

My tuna fish revelation

How could something so dreary become so dreamy?

Poor, underrated canned tuna, lambasted as a cheap dish or simply a fast one. I never suspected that, in creative hands, it could be elevated to a pièce de résistance.

As a child, I still recall, on lazy Saturday afternoons, my mother seizing a can of Chicken of the Sea tuna from the cupboard, opening it, and scraping it into a bowl. Next came a dollop of mayonnaise, a brisk mashing about with a fork, and the troweling onto a snow white slice of Wonder Bread. She then added an opposing slice and handed the product to me, with a “There you go.” I don’t remember the experience being remarkable in any way, but it was, for a growing boy, sufficient.

I’ve rarely eaten tuna in adulthood, although I admit I’ve never put any elbow grease into discovering what I could do with it beyond the dollop-of-mayo approach that my mother seems to have imprinted on me. 

My view of canned tuna shifted on its axis recently when a friend invited me over for a Sunday brunch featuring, in his words, “My world-famous tuna melt.”

I have to admit that my heart sank a bit, not least because Chris is from England, which has borne its share of opprobrium for supposedly unimaginative or tasteless cuisine. What would pedestrian tuna taste like in the hands of an Englishman? Would he succeed in adding insult to injury?

When I arrived at Chris’s house I caught a whiff of something exotic in the air. Had he changed the menu? Were we now going to dine on roast breast of hummingbird in champagne sauce? We sat at his table for a while, chatting and generally catching up, while my taste buds did somersaults. What was that aroma emanating from the kitchen? I finally pressed him. “The tuna,” he said. “It’s worth waiting for.”

Chris Mares’s ‘world-famous’ tuna melt

You’ll note that some of the amounts are open to interpretation. This allows for individual expression.  

Two 6-ounce cans of tuna 

Half of a small (8-ounce) can of sweet corn

1/4 cup diced onion (half of a medium onion)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

Squirt of lime juice

1/4 cup diced banana peppers (see note below)

Pickles of your fancy, diced

Handful of grated cheddar cheese 

8 slices of sturdy bread 

2 tablespoons butter (for frying) 

PREPARATION: In a medium bowl, mix together first seven ingredients. (You can mix in the grated cheese as well, if you like, or sprinkle it on top of the mixture once you’ve spread it on bread.) Divide mixture onto four slices of bread and spread evenly. Top with cheese if you didn’t mix it in. Add an opposing slice of bread to make a sandwich. In a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat, melt butter. Fry the sandwiches on both sides until bread is browned and sandwich is heated through. Enjoy. Exult. Celebrate. 

Note: Look for jars of banana peppers near the pickles at the market.

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