Baker, Cook, Writer, Pursuer of Gastronomic Joy

Tuna Melts

I cannot quite say why, but my mind has been on tuna melts. Not that they are ever particularly far from my mind, but there is a certain pull that has me wanting it in the weekly rotation (a sentence that implies I have a meal rotation of any sort as opposed to a sort of haphazard, on-the-fly execution day by day based on whatever I have around mixed with my heart’s desire, a mission to waste nothing, working with the time I think I have and the way time ends up actually playing out, and an irrepressible urge to constantly try something new, leading me to very rarely make the same thing twice and almost never follow my own advice about meal planning and grocery shopping at particular times with a well thought out list. *shrug*).

The tuna melt is, for me, a hallmark of the comfort food cannon. I largely go through comfort food cravings in a seasonal manner, finding each comforting in that they scratch that particular itch of being very much in that time both of year and of life, but the tuna melt is something that tickles my nostalgia center at all points of the year in different ways. A summer tuna melt – which I maintain should still be a melt rather than a tuna sandwich despite hot weather because hot sandwiches are simply the best (other than tomato sandwiches which should be on toasted bread but otherwise cold) – unlocks a self while a fall tuna melt grounds, a winter coddles, and a spring inspires. 

A summer tuna melt comes with a side of potato chips – baked or kettle, hopefully sour cream and onion but likely plain – and the scent of mown grass. Lightly toasted rye or potato bread house a simple salad with seasoned salt, American cheese, some pickles, and the gift of in-season tomatoes. If there is good, crunchy lettuce it can come on board too. There should be lemonade, and some stone fruit for a sweet finish would not go amiss (neither would a hood ice cream sandwich). This is lunch and lunch alone.

Fall gets funkier – the cheese, the seasoning, the veg. The cheddar should be sharp if it’s not a muenster. Or perhaps a goat cheese? Or pepper jack! The farmers market is winding down and with less produce to overbuy the cheesemonger is able to get more of my attention. Did I blow half of my grocery budget on a blue cheese I just couldn’t take my eye off of? It’s going in there! There’s probably some caramelized onions kicking about the fridge that ought to join the party. I should not see a gram of uncooked produce, but anything getting jammified or condiment-ed during this harvest period would probably do well in addition to Dijon mustard. Though if you didn’t have time to sauté those apples I would not be terribly upset if they made their way in there. Pickles stay the course. The bread becomes bulkier, letting the sourdough boule really shine and seedier sandwich breads have their time. Maybe a bagel starts to dip its toes in? It could. Whatever the case, it’s proper fair for lunch or dinner depending on how the wind is blowing. It pairs especially well with apple cider and an evening wrapped in a blanket by a fire inside or out.

Winter certainly calls the bagel into the fray. On the coldest of days, it is an absolute requirement. Please point me towards the closest bagel shop/deli where I can get an everything (an egg-everything, really, but I never try and get my hopes up too much), with a well-mayoed mound of textureless tuna, the meltiest cheese, and little else other than pickles and red onion. It is thick, it is dripping through the expertly wrapped wax paper, and it is the best breakfast/lunch/dinner that week eaten under a heated blanket while watching a good movie.

There’s too much happening in spring for such restriction and simplicity and, frankly, planning. Carrots! Scallions! Radishes! Things are coming alive again and it has been so long and to NOT include a trace of that is a waste. Really, it’s a little less of a tuna melt a more of a sandwich that includes tuna. Dare I say the cheese is negotiable? Is it still a melt if nothing melts and is just hot? I say yes because the spirit is the same though I know in my heart it’s semantically inaccurate. But it is spring! Rules are out the window! Gimme it as a wrap with literally any and every shredded vegetable available, load that salad with herbs, add some fish sauce or anchovy paste to the mix because you can feel the call of warmer days by a body of water and are willing it here by means of fishy flavor. Now more than ever, there are pickles. You thought there would ever NOT be pickles? Not only are there pickles, but if all of that veg you had were to be somewhere on the pickle spectrum you would have won the springtime tuna melt lottery. Toast it up to make it crunchy and power me through whatever big project I am in the midst of that took hold amidst the winter doldrums and spring inspirations.

Such are the tuna melts of the seasons for me now. I am currently making those oniony, garlicky, melty melts on spelt spiked sourdough, rye, and buckwheat loaves with the sharpest cheese I can find (and yes, some too-beautiful blue). Finding the joy of saurkraut making this summer now means that it is a regular part of not only the tuna melt gang but pretty much any sandwich where it would not be incredibly, terribly out of place (this sandwich has yet to be one of my natural desires).

But I think I am feeling particularly drawn to this sandwich now more for its reflections on the seasons of life. For many years were those that the summer tuna melt was the only one. Barely a melt, really, more tuna salad toasted on bread. American cheese only – and that American better be cut from the deli counter and NOT wrapped in plastic  – with no veg, and certainly NO other textures. While a summer salad of today is best with finely chopped celery, the idea of celery in my tuna salad as a child was a non-starter. I will take my food smooth, bland, and free of produce thank you very much. I also developed a habit of barely draining the water-packed tuna before mixing it with mayo once I was making them myself. Honestly, I’m not sure if this was about not wasting, making the mixture more gloopy, or catching every bit of tuna flavor that might be in that tin. I just know I felt quite strongly about its inclusion.

At a certain point, I moved away from that practice and became okay with celery as well (more than okay with, actually. Celery is an underappreciated boon to flavor, texture, and aroma and I am waiting for the day that those glorious stalks are made into the practical propaganda as mushrooms are currently). The formerly blank canvas of tuna salad seasoning became a canvas where I could experiment and showcase my developing taste.

In college it took special significance, not only being the time when the bagel tuna melt became a stalwart in my life and a reliable comfort meal amidst trying times but also a symbol of cafeteria innovation. The day I realized I could not pay Bagel Shop Prices for the sandwich my soul needed but grab a bagel from one section of the school café and bring it over to the sandwich section to have it made with café money I felt like I had hacked the system. Of course, it was not the same as those deli melts, and sometimes I relented to treating myself, but finding a more accessible path to delight felt like a big accomplishment.

The days are now short and cold and it is that time when I am cravenly seeking out anything that might warm my eternally frigid self. The internal metronome is slow and the body is ready for a day of rest after a week with the motor running at full speed. While there’s a squash that has been begging to be stuffed and some leeks that would like to be braised, they may have to hold a while longer as I fire up the skillet and make another melt. 

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