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In Search of the Ultimate Tuna Melt (and Bread and Butter Pickles to go with it)


         Consider the Tuna Melt, that diner staple that combines tuna salad, a slice of bread and a heated layer of cheddar cheese.  I myself have consumed dozens and dozens of the open-faced sandwiches in a quest to find the perfect Tuna Melt.   And almost inevitably I am disappointed.  The tuna salad, a glutinous mass of canned tuna, mayonnaise, celery and occasionally onion, is hit or miss.  But the most common sin is that the tuna salad is often almost ice cold, while the cheese topping is barely warmed through.  But I’ve pressed on for years until I came across a recipe not just for what Bon Appetit magazine pronounced ‘the best they’ve tried’ but also for a bread and butter pickle the writers insisted was their essential accompaniment. Perhaps my disappointment came not from the sandwich but from not having the pickles to go with it?  Either way, the ringing endorsement of the Tuna Melt and Bread and Butter pickles created by the Palace Diner in Biddeford, Maine made me only too happy to rush to make it.  And while I was at it, to take a look at the Tuna Melt’s origins, some of them fact and some of them, well, if not fiction, shall we say, questionable?

          


Canned Tuna, it turns out, is relatively new on the culinary scene.  Before 1903, sardines made up the bulk of American canned fish.  That year sardine supplies were in short supply.  A grocer in California named Albert P. Halfhill decided to pack empty sardine tins with Albacore Tuna. The fish itself was considered a “nuisance fish’ because it’s large schools got in the way of catching the prized sardines.  Mr. Halfhill discovered that, when steamed, the tuna turned an appealing white color with a great taste.   He was not alone in his liking for canned tuna. In less that a decade, tuna was being produced by 13 factories delivering 115,000 cases a year.  Then, during World War I, easily transported canned tuna was sent overseas to feed the troops.  It became so wildly popular that by 1954, the US was the world’s largest producer of canned tuna eclipsing Italy and Japan who had invented canned tuna.                  

The Lunch Counter at Woolworth’s on King St.
in Charleston S.C.
Was the Tuna Melt invented here?

But what of our Tuna Melt?  Here history get a little less verifiable.  According a writer named Warren Bobrow, the Tuna Melt was invented in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr Bobrow writes that about 1965, at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on King Street, the ‘ladies’ were working at their assigned tasks while Chef Bo filled orders. One came in as follows: “I‘ll have a grilled cheese sandwich, white bread with a smear of mayo and slices of American cheese, “just as you like it”.  Then according to Bobrow, ‘atop the griddle on a shelf, a freshly made tuna salad sits of the edge…and, as if guided by a hidden hand, the contents tip over, falling on the grilled cheese. Voilà! The Tuna Melt is born!”  A tall tale no doubt because it gives no explanation for the fact that the English have an identical sandwich called Tuna Alex or Tuna James and not Tuna Bo.  Finally, there’s reason to believe that the popularity of the Tuna Melt was largely the work of Kraft Foods who wanted to prove the versatility of their Velveeta Cheese.  Ah well, another day, another food mystery.  Now on to our recipe.            
Palace Diner in Biddeford Maine.
Home of the Ultimate Tuna Melt

The secret to a great tuna melt goes beyond creating a great tuna salad like this one. This recipe is full of flavor and not nearly as mayonnaise-y as most.  The cucumber here adds another dimension in flavor and crunch.  And while the ingredient list is substantially longer than you would expect, every ingredient brings a nuance to the finished salad.   If you make the salad and immediately make the tuna melt, you will avoid the arctic chill of many a Tuna Melt.  The original recipe called for Brioche Bread.  I much prefer the English Muffin as a base – I am a sucker for those nooks and crannies.  I also believe that the muffins should be toasted prior to the addition of the tuna salad. This has the same effect as pre-cooking a tart shell so there’s no soggy bottom.   Finally, I grated the cheese rather than using a slab or slice of cheddar.  It think it melts better that way.  The Palace Diner version caps off the sandwich with iceberg lettuce and a couple of pickles.  I served my pickles but, as a Tuna Melt purist, left out the Iceberg.  To my way of thinking, I achieved the Ultimate Tuna Melt.  Here is the recipe:



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