A Childhood Favorite, a Tuna Salad Sandwich With Chips

Who introduced you to your first tuna and potato chip sandwich? A lunchroom friend? To parent? Or perhaps it was your own early culinary invention?

Despite its popularity (and undeniable deliciousness), tracking down its provenance has proved difficult.

By 1959, according to what was then the United States Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, 8 out of 10 American households served canned tuna at least once a week, often in a saucepan topped with crushed chips. (Recipes for tuna noodle casserole date to the earlier part of the century.) Given the ubiquity of each ingredient, it seems likely that kids started regularly smashing the two together around this time. The timing coincides with some of the earliest tuna-and-chip sandwich anecdotes I found in my interviews.

The chef Alex Guarnaschelli told me that her late mother, Maria, who edited my first cookbook, made a version with barbecue-flavored potato chips and toasted rye bread. (The chip company Herr’s, in Nottingham, Pa., introduced barbecue chips to its line in 1958, when the older Ms. Guarnaschelli was a teenager.)

Ashley and Avery Hardin also opt for barbecue chips in the excellent yellowfin sandwich they serve from their food truck, Layers Sandwich Company, in Seattle. Theirs is a fancied-up version of the one Mr. Hardin grew up eating, flavored with shallots and pickles. Ms. Hardin says she prefers Doritos in her own tuna sandwiches. For her, as is the case for many, it’s the juxtaposition of soft and crisp — what she called “textural umami” — that makes the combination work.

I concur, based on the results of several informal taste tests: the crisper the chip, the better the sandwich. Kettle-style chips maintain their texture longer than thinner standard chips. Ruffles are crunchier still. I was especially surprised and delighted by the generous crunch (and salt) a handful of Fritos adds. Jeff Mason, who ran the Bay Area sandwich shop Pal’s Takeaway, swears by Indian papadums. This makes me wonder what other crispy-salty snacks might work.

Dan Pashman, host of the podcast “The Sporkful,” said the key was to aim for “dynamic contrast,” or different textures throughout the bite. He liked it to a candy bar: “There’s a hard shell, then a gooey part, then a chewy or crunchy part.”

His mother, Linda, says tuna and potato chip sandwiches were a staple of slumber parties during her 1960s childhood in Marblehead, Mass. Those featured Hutchinson’s chips, a handmade, kettle-cooked brand that operated continuously in Marblehead from 1892 to 1968.

The writer and chef Allison Robicelli suggests adding crushed chips directly to the tuna salad, a move inspired by the tuna sandwiches her husband, Matt, ate as a paramedic at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. But I found that the real trick is to fold them in at the last moment, before spooning it onto the bread, balancing another large handful of chips on top of the tuna, then closing the sandwich with a firm press to embed the chip layer into the salad. This lends the entire sandwich extra structural integrity, maintains that dynamic contrast and allows you to feel and hear the crunch even before your first bite.

I remember my mother making her tuna salad by squeezing the water from a can of tuna over the sink, using the lid as a strainer, then adding a large dollop of Japanese Kewpie mayo and mixing it directly in the can with a fork. I hesitate to tell you what you should add to your tuna salad, as it feels that such decisions are so closely tied to identity. (In a recent New York Times Cooking recipe inspired by Iranian flavors, Naz Deravian suggests dill, parsley, lemon juice and chopped pickles.)

Personally, I like the crunch of diced celery and red onions, and, if I want to be fancy, some minced parsley and chives. If you’re feeling flush, you could add a copious amount of extra-virgin olive oil emulsified into the tuna salad with a fork, an idea from the chef Ana Sortun, who folds tuna and olive oil into the stuffing of what are possibly the greatest deviled eggs in existence at her Boston restaurant, Oleana.

But there’s no need to be fancy with the tuna itself. I made my family try tuna salads made with every form of canned tuna, ranging from the cheapest water-packed yellowfin tuna to oil-packed Mediterranean yellowfin tuna belly, in a side-by-side taste test. After seasoning the salad and forming the sandwiches, the main discernible difference is the price. I strongly suggest saving the fancy stuff for other uses. Water-packed solid skipjack or yellowfin works just fine, and those smaller fish are also more responsibly harvested.

I cannot remember my first tuna salad and potato chip sandwich, though I do recall when my dad taught me how to make a tuna melt. My friends Charles and Rachel Kelsey say they started adding a layer of chips in between the tuna and the melted cheese in the tuna melts they serve at their Brookline, Mass., sandwich shop, Cutty’s. I haven’t tried this yet, but Charles tells me it’s become an essential step for him.

This has been the most common refrain among the dozens of people I interviewed and the hundreds more who have commented on my social media posts: Whether you discover tuna and chip sandwiches as a child or an adult, you won’t make them any other way .

recipe: Tuna Crunch Sandwiches

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