Aug 26, 2022

Comfort Food: Mine’s Tuna But Your Roughage May Vary

Stranded since youth on a sandwich island

By Ed Goldman

Like many of you, when I let myself succumb to an emotional kerfuffle, I use Comfort Food to mitigate collateral damage.

I realize that many prefer Comfort Booze or Comfort Meth for this purpose—but my go-to assuager has always been a tuna sandwich on wheat toast with a side of French fries and a sour dill pickle.

Edgy Cartoon

Name That Tuna!

While I really have no idea why this particular combo comprises a happy meal for me, I can easily trace when it first dished its way into my life. 

When I was a first- and second-grader attending New York City’s Public School 106 in the Bronx, my folks needed to pull me from school twice to get some medical tests. On both occasions they picked me up at 10 a.m. and drove me to a nearby clinic to be probed, injected and generally upset. I vaguely recall these as “booster” shots, though I can’t pinpoint which vaccine they were boosting—the one for smallpox, measles, chickenpox, polio, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, rabies or hoof-in-mouth disease—but vividly remember the booster injections hurting worse than the originals.   

Once the tests and shots were over, my folks and I went to a little diner called the Hamburger Express, in which electric trains darted around the curved counter delivering lunches on micro-replicas of flatcars.

On the rare days that Hamburger Express was closed—due to a government holiday or Health Department-mandated fumigation—we would meander to Hamburger Square, whose chief concept was that the patties were square, not circular. (As an adult, my suspicion is that the eatery’s name preceded its specialty—and further, that if the owners had purchased a place called Hamburger Circle, unique concepts might have been more challenging to develop.)

Whether we went to Hamburger Express or Hamburger Square, I always ordered the aforementioned tuna sandwich et al. It seemed to delight my mom and perplex my dad: the former because she thought that my ordering one of the same sandwiches she’d concoct for me at home (the other faves being grilled cheese and some odd assemblage of bologna that called itself pimento loaf); the latter because he couldn’t understand how a son of his, when given the chance to choose, wouldn’t always opt for a meat product. 

This was a sign of the times. The closest my mom ever came to making seafood was to fry up canned fish mashed with bread crumbs and present the resulting amalgam  as “salmon croquets.” It seems pertinent to add that she pronounced these “salmon crockets”—and to further reveal that somehow she always managed to buy canned salmon that had bones in it. I suspect that because of the bones and because I didn’t recognize the brand-name on the label, a price break had been factored into the deal.

Apparently I haven’t been alone in my declaration that a tuna sandwich provides a sense of well-being. 

About a decade ago I devoted a few of my daily columns in the Sacramento Business Journal to my pursuit of the best locally made tuna sandwich. An inadvertent byproduct of the search was that its announcement led to a few free lunches—not from restaurateurs or diner owners hoping to cadge some ink, but from readers wanting to share the results of their own quests.

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So I happily munched this holy grail mixture—of tuna, chopped celery, onions, a dab of mustard and gobs of mayonnaise (or, for a total flashback to childhood, Miracle Whip)—in the sporadically busy coffee shops on the first floor of office buildings; at a private club whose menu proclaimed the establishment  had “the world’s best tuna sandwich” (it didn’t); and a chain deli that served exactly one ice-cream scoop of pre-mixed tuna on either a three- or six-inch sourdough roll (the larger roll still had only one scoop). 

I finally ate the best sandwich at St. John’s Shelter for Real Change, which provides sanctuary for homeless women, many of whom were the victims of domestic violence, and their children. The shelter’s clients could spend up to 18 months there getting their lives together through mental health counseling and, key to our discussion, job training. Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney, married local restaurateurs, taught the women to cook or reminded them they used to know how to, and about various other facets of the hospitality industry. They also hired or helped find employment for several of the women as they “graduated” from the St. John’s program.

This all became personally pertinent when its then-executive director, Michele Steeb, saw my columns and invited me to sample the tuna sandwich the shelter featured on the menu of its inhouse enterprise, Plates Cafe. The sandwich, whose secret ingredients were capers, provided a quasi-religious idyl for me, and I declared it the irrefutable winner of my little contest.

This made a few of the passed-over cooks and eateries resentful, as you might expect—to the extent that the next time I went to one of their places for my favorite comfort food, I was made to feel decidedly—well, uncomfortable. Talk about collateral damage!

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).