It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.
America’s love affair with tuna dates to 1903, when a failure of the sardine fisheries along the California coast nearly ruined the canning industry. Using innovative methods, Japanese-American fishermen began catching albacore tuna instead, available in such abundant numbers that only recently have supplies begun to dwindle. When canned, these fish exhibited a light colored flesh and low fattiness that was soon being compared to chicken breast.
All that was needed was sliced bread and jarred mayonnaise. In the ensuing two decades, the tuna canning industry expanded meteorically, much of the product going into tuna sandwiches, which became staples of lunch counters and the brown paper sacks kids brought to school. While previous similar sandwiches like chicken salad had required cooking, tuna salad could be easily made with no stove.
When I had my first New York City tuna salad sandwich in the early 1980s, I detected a mistrust of tuna salad that I hadn’t seen in the rest of the country. Briefly, the public was worried that unscrupulous cooks were loading down their tuna salad with too much mayo, and fillers that included lots of celery and onions. There were worries about freshness, too, in an era when mayo that sat out in the open too long was thought to cause diseases. Truth be told, there is little danger.
And thus was the “individual can tuna” sandwich born, becoming a New York icon. Instead of scooping your tuna salad out of a metal receptacle (where, to be frank, it often looked a little soupy), the deli operator would pull down a small, 3 oz. can of tuna from a pyramidal display, and make your tuna salad from scratch, adding as much mayo (or even mustard or sour cream) as you wanted, and keeping the filler down to a minimum. Mercury be damned, it was filler we were worried about back then.
A quick check of delis in several neighborhoods showed none of them still offer the once-iconic individual can of tuna sandwich. But you can experience it in spirit by visiting one of our oldest delis, Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, dating to 1929, when canned tuna sandwiches were in their heyday. Order its tuna salad sandwich ($8.75) on, say, whole wheat, and the bread is automatically toasted. The filling is dense with fish, with just enough mayo to barely hold it together. No chopped celery, pickle relish, or onion, though I did have a slice of sweet white onion put on top for extra flavor.
The sandwich was fantastic, accented with a pickle on the side. But I had to add salt, because today’s canned tuna doesn’t have enough of it, presumably for reasons of healthfulness. 174 Fifth Ave, between 22nd and 23rd streets, Flatiron