Your first tuna and potato chip sandwich was probably presented to you by someone else. Is there a lunchroom buddy? Are you a parent? Or was it something you came up with on your own in the kitchen?
However, despite its widespread appeal (and unquestionable taste), tracing its origins has proven to be challenging.
The United States Bureau of Commercial Fisheries reported in 1959 that 8 out of 10 American families served canned tuna at least once a week, most of the time in a casserole with crushed potato chips on top. Cooking recipes for tuna noodle casserole have been around since the turn of the twentieth century. Given the widespread availability of each component, it is probable that children began frequently combining the two ingredients about this period. The period corresponds with some of the first accounts about tuna-and-chip sandwiches that I discovered in my interviews.
BBQ chips are also used in the superb albacore sandwich that Ashley and Avery Hardin make for customers at the Seattle location of their food truck, Layers Sandwich Company. The dish they serve is a dressed-up version of the one Mr. Hardin grew up eating, with shallots and cornichons added for taste. Ms. Hardin says she likes Doritos in her tuna sandwiches, which she makes herself. She, like many others, believes that the contrast of soft and sharp — what she refers to as “textural umami” — is the key to making the combo come together.
The results of multiple informal taste tests led me to the same conclusion: the crispier the chip, the better the sandwich. Kettle-style chips keep their texture for a longer period of time than thinner conventional chips. Ruffles have an even crunchier texture. I was particularly taken aback and thrilled by the considerable crunch (and salt) that a handful of Fritos brought to the table. Jeff Mason, who used to own the sandwich business Pal’s Takeaway in the San Francisco Bay Area, swears on Indian papadums. This makes me wonder what other crispy-salty snacks might be suitable in this situation.
In order to achieve “dynamic contrast,” or distinct textures throughout a mouthful, according to Dan Pashman, presenter of the podcast “The Sporkful,” it is important to strive for “dynamic contrast.” Using a candy bar as an analogy, he said, “There is an outwardly hard shell, followed by a gooey centre, followed by chewy or crunchy centre.”
His mother, Linda, recalls that tuna and potato chip sandwiches were a mainstay of slumber parties during her youth in Marblehead, Massachusetts, throughout the 1960s. Those included Hutchinson’s chips, a handcrafted, kettle-cooked brand that was in business in Marblehead from 1892 until 1968 and was a Marblehead institution.
Allison Robicelli, a writer and chef, proposed incorporating crushed tortilla chips straight into the tuna salad, a suggestion that was inspired by the tuna sandwiches her husband, Matt, used to eat while working as a paramedic at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. However, I discovered that the key is to fold them in at the last minute before spooning the tuna onto the bread, stacking another big handful of chips on top of the tuna, and then sealing the sandwich with a forceful press to ensure that the chip layer is embedded into the tuna dressing. This gives the whole sandwich more structural integrity, helps to preserve the dynamic contrast, and lets you to feel and hear the crunch even before you take your first bite of sandwich.
My mother used to make tuna salad by squeezing the water from a tuna can over the sink, using the lid as a strainer, then adding a huge dollop of Japanese Kewpie mayo and mixing it straight in the can with a fork. Although I loathe to advise you on what to include in your tuna salad since it seems that such judgments are so directly related to one’s own individuality, I believe it is necessary.
Personally, I like the crispness of chopped celery and red onions, as well as the addition of minced parsley and chives if I’m feeling really sophisticated. It’s also possible to dress up the tuna salad with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil emulsified into it with a fork, an idea courtesy of chef Ana Sortun, who at her Boston restaurant, Oleana, folds tuna and olive oil into the stuffing of what are possibly the best deviled eggs in existence.
However, when it comes to the tuna itself, there is no need to go overboard. I forced my family to eat tuna salads prepared with every kind of canned tuna available, ranging from the most inexpensive water-packed albacore to the most expensive oil-packed Mediterranean yellowfin tuna belly, in a side-by-side comparison. After preparing the salad and assembling the sandwiches, the only thing that distinguishes them is the price difference. I highly advise you to save the glitz and glam for other occasions. Solid skipjack or albacore fillets function just as well as water-packed fillets, and the smaller fish are obtained in a more environmentally conscious manner.
Even while I can’t recall my first tuna salad and potato chip sandwich, I can remember when my father showed me how to make sloppy joes or a tuna melt. My friends Charles and Rachel Kelsey tell me that they began putting a layer of chips between the tuna and the melted cheese in the tuna melts they offer at their Brookline, Massachusetts, sandwich restaurant, Cutty’s, a few years ago. I haven’t tried it yet, but Charles has told me that it has become a necessary stage in his process.