The tunafish sandwich was first created on May 19, 1902 by Sir Thomas Tunafish, a noted British eccentric. Contrary to expectations, the first tunafish sandwiches did not, in fact, contain tuna but were what modern sandwich afficianados would call “creamed chipped beef on toast”. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the modern tunafish sandwich was perfected, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Sir Thomas was seeking to find a suitable glue that would hold his life’s quest – a papier mache flying machine – together in inclement weather. Inspired by the Israelites in the book of Exodus, he thought that adding thin flakes of beef to his water and flour mixture would act as a binder to strengthen the glue when it got wet. (Why he thought this is a bit of a mystery, but it should be noted that Sir Thomas was certifiably insane.) By a fortuitous accident he was heating the mixture when the maid brought him some toast and marmalade with his afternoon tea. He absentmindedly applied the glue to the toast instead of marmalade and the tunafish sandwich was born.
Sir Thomas himself did not profit from his invention but it was very shortly after his discovery that London was inundated with door-to-door “Tunafish Sandwich” vendors. These vendors filled their pockets with toast and carried the hot gravy and beef mixture in ingenious contraptions in their hats. They wore colorful costumes and generally walked by shuffling their feet while remaining almost perfectly upright (to avoid spilling hot gravy on their persons). Examples of the tunafish vendors’ gay apparel can still be found in smaller British museums to this day. The usual price for a sandwich was two pennies, or sixpence if the customer wanted to hold it him- (or her-) self, rather than eating it from the the vendor’s hands.
Like other English affectations, sandwich vendors became very popular in Pennsylvania during the “Roaring Twenties”. However, the enterprising Americans were quick to vary the original recipe, substituting chicken, pork, squirrel and parsnips for the beef and experimenting with other sauces, including mayonnaise, bernaise, hollandaise, pesto, salsa, green ketchup and chinese mustard. But it was a young, unemployed sailor in Johnstown, named Francis Starkist, who finally hit on the magic formula of flaked tuna and mayonnaise. In order to streamline production and marketing he also added the crucial features of NOT toasting the bread and of using two slices to hold it all together. After his initial success he hired his older brother, Aloysius, to work on further improvements. It was Aloysius who actually came up with the idea to make the sandwiches ahead of time, rather than carrying the ingredients in a hat, and to wrap them in cellophane. The modern tunafish sandwich was born.
The final step, adding diced pickles, was invented independently during World War II, and Francis Starkist always considered it a corruption of his creation. But there’s no stopping the march of progress. Popular with GIs, the tunafish sandwich, with diced pickles, became a staple of mess halls everywhere; and when the boys came back after the war they weren’t about to give up their favorite snack food. (Incidentally, the original tunafish sandwich, creamed chipped beef on toast, also was very popular but since the “tunafish” name was already taken, this dish was renamed.)
Now tunafish reigns supreme as the favorite sandwich of Americans and many other nations worldwide. Its only serious competition comes from a relatively late invention of the three Jif brothers: Peanut, Butter and Jelly. But more on that later.
Tomorrow: Egg Salad – Where did it come from? Why is it here?