I was sitting on a bench by Morningside Park, eating my Hamdel Tuna Melt and enjoying the unseasonably cool weather, when a lingering question turned into an obsession. Who invented the tuna melt? Tuna salad griddled with cheese between bread seems like a simple concept, but at some far removed point in the mists of American history, some hitherto anonymous chef decided to conduct a sandwich experiment. After I finished my lunch, I set out to uncover the tuna melt’s story.
In 1903, Alfred P. Halfhil started selling canned tuna. By World War I, canned tuna had become a popular commodity, but the need for safe, preserved food to feed troops abroad established the tuna canning industry as an American giant. Cookbooks begin referencing tuna salad and tuna sandwiches in the 1910s. Frederic Haskin’s Recipes For Using Canned Goods (1916) recommends mixing tuna, mayonnaise, French dressing, celery, and lettuce; Amelia Doddridge’s formula in Liberty Recipes (1918) includes the same tuna, mayonnaise, French dressing, and celery, along with egg, green pepper, and olives; The Boston Cooking-School Magazine of Culinary Science (1913) advises serving tuna salad as part of an August picnic spread. The tuna industry actually wrote recipes to promote the canned product and to educate housewives. According to Lynne Olver, editor of The Food Timeline, hot sardine sandwiches without cheese were popular in the 1920s and ’30s—but tuna sandwiches remained a cold delicacy during the Depression era. After World War II, tuna first met melted cheese in creations like Irma Rombauer’s 1946 vintage “Tuna Fish Sandwiches with Cheese” (from the Joy of Cooking, no less). Olver notes that these early tuna cheese sandwiches were similar to today’s patty melt; a sandwich by any other name would taste as great.
Tour de Hamel is, however, all about the names—when did the phrase “tuna melt” start lining diner tickets? Jean Anderson’s The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century points to a 1973 cookbook, Ida Bailey’s Best Loved Recipes of the American People. Yet, Bailey died in 1973, and Best Loved includes recipes gathered across her long culinary career. The tuna melt most likely originated much earlier than that first cookbook mention.
To carbon date the tuna melt, look no further than its obvious predecessor, the patty melt. As with all great American foods, the original author of the patty melt remains a matter of controversy. Saveur maintains that William “Tiny” Naylor invented the hamburger-swiss-on-rye confection sometime in the 1940s or ’50s—that hazy golden age of fast food entrepreneurism. “Tiny Naylor’s” spread across Southern California bearing melts and burgers on grease-stained plates. I suspect that the phrase “tuna melt” was intended to evoke its greasier, California blooded cousins. The Oxford English Dictionary traces “patty melt” back to 1956: a caption in Diner, Drive-In (not the Guy Fieri show) reading, “Taste-appealing ‘Patty-Melt’—grilled cheese and a hamburger patty.” In his “abridged history” of the tuna melt, William Bobrow makes a bold claim. The time: 1965. The place: Charleston, South Carolina, the Woolworth’s lunch counter on King Street. The man without a plan: Chef Bo, who accidentally spilled a bowl of tuna salad on a grilled cheese. Unwittingly, Chef Bo created a patty melt without the patty, and the tuna melt soon spread to Woolworth’s counters across this glorious fast food nation.
I grew up eating tuna salad and melts, always on Monday nights when my dad came home from the office and wanted an easy meal. For my Jewish family, Mondays invariably meant fish dinners, and I looked forward to the occasional appearance of English muffins on the grocery list. Our melts came with American or cheddar; that first bite of tuna and tangy cheese, served at volcanic temperatures, never failed to take the roof off my mouth. If I say that my childhood food memories revolve around such treats as tuna melts and meat loaf and pickle plates—dills and green tomatoes and baby corn and black olives out of a can—you might pat my head and pity my relative deprevation. I love(d) those dishes though. Great taste doesn’t have to be organic and sustainable.
In fact, canned tuna gained its astonishing popularity because of a reputation for wholesomeness and convenience. During the 1970s and ’80s, media and industry touted canned tuna’s health benefits and home economics. Of course, it is the American way to take a healthy food and make it delicious (read: devastatingly unhealthy). The tuna melt, a decidedly fattening dinner option, gestures at nutritionism while delivering on grimey diner flavor. Gary Allen, food history editor of Leite’s Culinaria, told me that he has hated canned tuna since his infant days. If only he could defeat his dislike and try an authentic—and I use that word, for once, seriously—American tuna melt, which tastes nothing like canned tuna and everything like sweet caramelized cheese and mayo and albacore.
At Hamdel, the tuna melt includes hot tuna salad, American cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a toasted hero. Although the cheese arrives semi-solid and the salad relies more on mayonnaise than fish for flavor, I devoured this hero without hesitation. Make me a tuna melt and I’m a happy man.
Instead of eating locally, I aim to eat historically—to understand the history of the food I consume, its historical politics, and its situation within our individual and collective biographies. I am a historivore—a term unlikely to catch on or trend on Twitter or whatever those crazy kids are doing these days, but a moniker I relish nonetheless.
I would order this sandwich again, because I am, as this unwieldy Tour de Hamdel edition proves, a sucker for a tuna melt.
Next: the Twister (grilled smoked turkey, melted Provolone cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and mayo on a toasted hero).
Special thanks to Gary Allen and Lynne Olver for assisting me in my research for this post.