In 2015, I moved into my boyfriend’s apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, and he introduced me to some of life’s most essential joys, many of which I had never, in my then-25 years of life, experienced — Bob Seger, pickup trucks and, most important of all, tuna salad.
One afternoon, after waking up to an especially brutal hangover, I stumbled into the kitchen searching for a glass of water and found him setting about the task of preparing tuna salad. I tried to hide my disgust at the sight of the canned tuna on the counter. It looked like a food better suited for a college dorm room, not the apartment of two adult professionals.
To be perfectly honest, I had never tried tuna salad before that moment — every time it was offered, balking at the thought of the mushy, shredded tuna mingling with the oily mayonnaise. But watching him combine the ingredients piqued my interest. He bashfully held out the spoon and asked if I wanted to try it. I took a bite and was instantly hooked. I can now split my life into two parts: the bleak, empty years before I discovered tuna salad and the joyful years after.
I recently read a Wall Street Journal article that tried to blame millennials for the downfall of my precious canned tuna. I’m usually skeptical of articles that target a group of heavily in debt people for creating economic disasters beyond their control, but this one alarmed me. Apparently, canned tuna sales have declined 40 percent per capita in the past 30 years, according to the Department of Agriculture.
The vice president of marketing and innovation for StarKist, Andy Mecs, had a bizarre reason for claiming that this particular age group is the reason canned tuna is going out of style. He told The Wall Street Journal, “A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers.” Jimmy Kimmel later spoofed this idea by ambushing millennials on the street and asking them to open a can of tuna. Most of them couldn’t figure out how to operate a handheld can opener, which is cause for concern.
I still think Mecs’ statement is a bit of a stretch, but it is true that more millennials are buying fresh fish. According to the Wall Street Journal’s report, the market research firm Mintel found that only 32 percent of consumers ages 18 to 34 recently bought canned fish.
This is bad news. Canned tuna, as one person interviewed for the article correctly put it, “has never been hot,” but it is nevertheless a precious resource. Without canned tuna, there would be no proper tuna salad. Because the only right way to make tuna salad is with canned tuna.
Canned tuna, though admittedly lowbrow, is as essential to tuna salad as coral is to the ocean. Tuna salad is a rare dish that doesn’t benefit from any fresh ingredients; the best versions include only bottled, jarred and refrigerated condiments. Each one works in symphonic harmony to create a dish that comes as close to culinary perfection as people can get in their own kitchen. There are the crunch and tang from the relish, and spicy mustard gives it a kick. Mayonnaise must be added for the creamy texture. It should also be seasoned generously with salt and pepper. The canned tuna is central to that equation. It doesn’t work without it. It’s acidic and briny after marinating in the oil in the can (a few drops of which you should preserve and mix into your salad), chewy but not too soggy.
I consider tuna salad an indulgent food, like a slice of chocolate cake, best consumed on lazy Sundays when you want to eat a meal that is dead simple and satisfies like a full dinner ordered on Seamless.
Canned tuna is not handcrafted or artisanal. Your mom probably kept a couple of cans in the pantry for emergencies. Or the only tuna salad you ever ate sat out for hours in the deli section of the grocery store before a woman in a hairnet scooped the sloplike mixture into a plastic container.
Those memories are understandably unappetizing. But if you prepare it with the exact ingredients I specified, you are almost guaranteed to fall in love with a dish that is unfairly dismissed as unsophisticated, even trashy. Tuna salad might be pedestrian, but done right, it tastes gourmet, and if you disagree, you simply aren’t making it correctly. Sure, you have every right to be grossed out by the suggestion that canned tuna, of all things, is responsible for this near-perfect food (it does, after all, smell a bit like cat food), but I will not allow it to be disparaged on my watch. Long live canned tuna.