It was an ancient barn door, varnished and mounted on crude stumps, set in our kitchen like a fallen tree grown over with hairy moss, permanent and rotting into the floor. We ate dinner around that table every night. Yet, of all the meals I ate there, all the smoked pork shoulders and venison steaks and lemon pies, I most clearly remember tuna melt Mondays. We would set out a relish tray piled with dill pickles and pimento-stuffed olives, baby corn, sweet pickles and hot pickles, unsalted cucumber chunks and beefsteak tomatoes slices, sprinkled with iodized salt till they wriggled like squirming slugs. Here’s how we made the melts: three spoonfuls of tuna salad on Thomas’ English muffins, American cheese peeled out from between waxy paper sheets, and then, a ten minute wait for the cheese to melt—ample time for lingering over a pickle nosh.
Today, in New York, it’s not hard to find a corner diner spitting out serviceable melts. The Metro Diner, at 100th Street and Broadway, looks like a safe stand for the tuna melt hunter: with its sexy retro stylings and vinyl interior, the Metro manages to affect anonymous intimacy. Everybody knows everybody’s name except yours. Although they heap the tuna on in great half-pound globs, the cheese flops overtop in flaccid curls. I prefer sandwiches of a slimmer figure. A tight little ham sandwich clad in sultry pumpernickel, sweetened with a dab of mayo; bupkis draped over a skinny slice of double-smoked nova; a shimmy of turkey breast stripped to its skivvies and served on country white; unshaved roast beef, European in its intention, unashamed and in horseradish heat: I like sandwiches with spirit and substance. But on Madison Avenue, spirit substitutes for substance. Going down a dress size isn’t just a matter of eating less—expensive calories stretch further in fantasyland than the cheap stuff. If you are of the Upper East Side persuasion, Untitled’s tuna salad sandwich on rye will suit you better than the real diner species. It’s richer. It’s impressed with its own self-effacing pretenses. It’s ready for client lunching or museum miling or athletic clubbing.
In the American culinary imagination, the diner alternatively stands for isolation and community. It swivels between the world of the industrial individual and the intimate friend, the stranger and the neighbor, facilitating a family away from the family. Bringing diner food back into the home added another layer of texture to my personal family life—it signaled a social function of the family beyond mandatory bowling alley outings. Ratifying the family as a social world requires social convention and ritual. To chart the family’s social territory is to build routine tradition. Consider the tuna melt as a new astrolabe fit for an old and frayed star. A proper tuna melt wants for a proper family: an English muffin splitter, a tuna salad fashioner, a cheese draper, an oven spotter, and an idle pickle nibbler. When I eat tuna melts in restaurants, I constantly check my shoulder for a hovering hand, one that brandishes a square of American or an extra dollop of tuna. Instead, I find a space hungry for what it once held.